Rich Peppiatt is a former tabloid reporter who resigned from the profession with a very public letter to his boss at the UK's Daily Star newspaper. He's since been a vocal critic of the British tabloid press, and has a new film called "One Rogue Reporter" that is part documentary, part satire, and part outrageous pranks against some of Britain's most notorious tabloid writers and editors. Bob speaks with Peppiatt about the film and how he turned tabloid journalists' own tricks against them.
BOB GARFIELD: This week, the German tabloid Bild published pictures of Kate Middleton's bare bottom, exposed when her skirt flew up during a recent trip to Australia. The British tabloid press was offered the pictures but dutifully refused them and denounced the German paper.
The - bottom-feeding Daily Mail went so far as to call it a “breach of privacy.” Could this mean that British tabloids have seen the errors of their own ways since the infamous News of the World Scandal and subsequent Leveson inquiry into press ethics? No. Alongside the story slamming Bild’s distasteful publication of Middleton's rear, the Daily Mail Online featured such gems as Toni Braxton narrowly avoids wardrobe malfunction exiting her SUV for dinner at Mr. Chow and “making-it-rain” moment, to X-Men director Bryan Singer threw hundreds of dollars at male strippers for lap dances at a Hollywood gay bar, complete with pictures.
The immutable lowbrowedness of the British tabloids is the subject of a new film, One Rogue Reporter, premiering next month at the Sheffield Documentary Festival. Its star and creator, Rich Peppiatt, knows something of which he speaks.
RICH PEPPIATT: Indeed. I used to be one of those shameless tabloid hacks. I resigned quite publicly three and a half years ago and leaked my resignation letter to the Guardian newspaper, sort of decrying some of the ethnical practices of my paper I was working, the, the Daily Star.
BOB GARFIELD: Early on in the film, do you establish your bona fides as a practitioner of the “dark tabloid arts”?
RICH PEPPIATT: When I landed a job at the Daily Star, one of Britain’s biggest-selling newspapers, what I didn’t imagine myself doing would be dressing up as Santa and getting drunk with strippers, or dressing up as a transvestite stripper. I’d like to say that was the bottom of my particular journalistic barrel, but here’s me dressed in a burka, yep, a burka.
Oh, I had many opportunities. I could have left. I wrote a lot of things I regretted. And I do question my immorality: Why did you allow yourself to get involved in this and why didn’t you earlier on say no? There is a degree of this film being me working through that.
BOB GARFIELD: The film shows some excerpts of your own testimony before the Leveson Inquiry into tabloid ethnics, sort of a combination of accusation and confessional.
RICH PEPPIATT: I resigned before the phone hacking scandal kicked off, and then when tabloid ethics became front page news and it became a big debate in Britain, I guess I got sucked back into it and I became involved in campaigned for press reform in Britain.
The turning point, I think, is when I went to a seminar that was put on by the Leveson Inquiry. All the top people in Fleet Street, all the top reporters and executives were all invited, and I was asked to give a, a presentation. And I went for the jugular, and let’s just say it wasn’t very well received. In the film, that’s the moment I went, right, okay, well if I can’t get through, if people aren’t gonna listen in a serious manner, then I’m going to attempt to do it in a, in a satirical manner, turning the tables on tabloid editors and executives, using the tricks and techniques that they taught me against them, to see how they like it.
BOB GARFIELD: This movie covers the whole landscape of tabloid trickery and moral bankruptcy. Can you give me some examples
of what One Rogue Reporter focuses on?
RICH PEPPIATT: You mentioned the Mail Online, one of the people that we stunt is the editor of the Mail Online, Martin Clarke. We hire a paparazzi to follow him around and take pictures of him, and I ask him some sort of sidebar of shame Mail Online questions that seem to populate that website.
RICH PEPPIATT: You got any gossip for us? You on a diet or anything? You detoxing?
MARTIN CLARKE: Who the hell are you?
RICH PEPPIATT: Who the hell am I?
MARTIN CLARKE: Yeah.
RICH PEPPIATT: I’m just doin’ me job, mate, just takin’ a few pics. I saw a nipple slip with Kim Kardashian earlier, brilliant. I’ll send it in, I’ll send it across.
MARTIN CLARKE: Seriously, who are you?
RICH PEPPIATT: Doin’ me job, mate, just doin’ me job, you know, takin’ a few pics.
RICH PEPPIATT: You wouldn’t believe some of the high horses you hear people like Martin Clarke get on when they are defending what they call the right of journalism in this country and its proud traditions. It’s amazing, the – the Daily Mail in Britain accuse the Guardian of being traitors for printing the Snowden leaks and said that wasn’t journalism, that was just irresponsible. Yet, they will defend their right to print up-skirt shots and, and nipple slips, as if that is journalism.
The people at the top of the, the tabloid industry in Britain don’t have any interest in journalism. They’re killing journalism.
BOB GARFIELD: One of the most stunning episodes in the film [LAUGHS] is just an interview with the former editor of The Sun, Kelvin MacKenzie.
RICH PEPPIATT: Kelvin MacKenzie is very famous as being probably the most disliked journalist in the country. He can’t even enter the city of Liverpool because of the things he wrote about the Hillsborough disaster at a football stadium, a disaster here 20 years ago. I think the gloves are very much off with anything that you can get on Kelvin MacKenzie.
BOB GARFIELD: I don’t know how you pulled this off [LAUGHS] but you were asking him a series of what seemed to be hypothetical questions about his publishing standards.
RICH PEPPIATT: A famous sports star is, is caught canoodling with a woman who’s not his girlfriend in a nightclub, would you publish or not publish?
KELVIN MacKENZIE: I would publish.
RICH PEPPIATT: You discover a politician has had an affair with his secretary a day after he’s announced his divorce, publish or don’t publish?
KELVIN MacKENZIE: Oh, publish! Oh, dear oh dear, you couldn’t get a big enough paper for that.
RICH PEPPIATT: But that one, that one’s pretty – that’s one pretty down –
KELVIN MacKENZIE: That – I mean, that one there, I mean, it’s game, set and match. There’ll be readers and editors all going, “Yes!”
KELVIN MacKENZIE: Yes! [LAUGHS]
RICH PEPPIATT: [LAUGHS] And the third one: You have proof a TV personality is exchanging saucy text messages with a woman who is not his wife.
[MUSIC UP & UNDER]
Rum the story or don’t rum the story?
KELVIN MacKENZIE: Run the story, depending on what the text message basically said.
RICH PEPPIATT: The first two are almost teeing up, the final scenario is his own scenario of his own life, of which I then start reading out his own text messages to the woman who’s not his wife.
BOB GARFIELD: In this next bit of tape, we hear text alerts as actual messages, previously written by MacKenzie himself, flesh on the screen.
KELVIN MacKENZIE: You know, even an occasion that you – you used to be into rubber -
KELVIN MacKENZIE: Oh, fantastic stuff!
RICH PEPPIATT: Fantastic stuff, eh?
KELVIN MacZEKZIE: Shocking!
RICH PEPPIATT: If you bring a tape along next Tuesday, I’ll let you measure it.
KELVIN MacKENZIE: Well, if the text said –
RICH PEPPIATT: If the text said that?
KELVIN MacKENZIE: Well, it depends what the “it” we’re referring to.
RICH PEPPIATT: I think a penis, probably.
KELVIN MacKENZIE: It – I would say that he was pretty much done for.
RICH PEPPIATT: Pretty much done for?
KELVIN MacKENZIE: Yeah.
RICH PEPPIATT: I lured him into the interview under the, the guise that I was from a Canadian production company, making a documentary about kiss ‘n tell stories. And he fled once he eventually clocked that this is not about any old kiss ‘n tell, this is about his own.
BOB GARFIELD: I gotta ask you, the text messages that are at the heart of this gag, how did you get them?
RICH PEPPIATT: Well, all I’m gonna say is a journalist has to protect his sources, and I’m pleading the Fifth. Is that what you’d say?
BOB GARFIELD: Was it like the phone hacking though, where laws were broken?
RICH PEPPIATT: No, it was completely above board. You know, the thing about phone hacking is phone hacking was lazy journalism. I don’t think there’s anything that was achieved by phone hacking that couldn't have been done with a bit more efforts in a legitimate way. And that was really what phone hacking was about. No, we’re – we’re very proud of that stunt because it took a lot of efforts.
BOB GARFIELD: He was not [LAUGHS] your only victim. Tell me some of the stunts involving other of the lions of Fleet Street.
RICH PEPPIATT: One of my favorites is against a guy named Neville Thurlbeck who is or was the chief reporter of the News of the World tabloid, which shut down in the phone hacking scandal and, and never was actually pled guilty to phone hacking, he wrote a story up at the News of the World, speaking about how he’d uncovered this seedy masseuse.
BOB GARFIELD: Undercover journalism, huh?
RICH PEPPIATT: It sort of sums up some of the problems of that sort of journalism, is this was a, a couple who ran a naturist B&B, sort of minding their own business. He went in there, wrote a big story in the national newspaper about the fact they gave nude massages and they were swingers. Is it really, minding their own business, in their own house, a topic that should be troubling journalism? Is it just for titillation? And because of that story, they had to shut down their guest house, they lost their business.
We managed to get a video of Neville Thurlbeck in a massage parlor, getting a naked massage, with a rather happy ending.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, in the end, this is not just a prank film. There’s a point to it. What’s the point?
RICH PEPPIATT: It’s about exposing the hypocrisy of the people who decide what you read in your newspaper every day and want you to allow them to be the arbiters of morality and the arbiters of what is news and showing that these people aren’t fit to run a bath, let alone a newspaper.
So often, they’re able to print things in their newspapers and never have to account for those things. Yes, it is puerile at times but I like to think that by the end there is a serious point that comes through.
BOB GARFIELD: Rich, thank you very much.
RICH PEPPIATT: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: Former tabloid reporter Rich Peppiatt’s new film is called One Rogue Reporter. You can learn more about it at oneroguereporter.com.