After the exposure of the methods used by Rupert Murdoch’s mass market Sunday tabloid the News of the World to obtain stories, you could be forgiven for believing that the average British tabloid journalist thinks “ethics” is a county on the east side of London.
Continuing revelations about the News of the World’s use of phone-hacking and police bribery in pursuit of scoops has scandalised the British public, while the relationships Murdoch’s News International publishing company has enjoyed with senior London police officers and the highest levels of both Labour and Conservative governments has sent shockwaves through our political establishment.
Consequences to date have included the resignations, and in some cases arrests, of NI and ex-NI executives, the resignations of top Metropolitan Police officers, the grilling of Rupert and James Murdoch by Parliamentary Select Committee, the dropping by the Murdochs of their bid to assume full ownership of broadcaster BSkyB, and, of course, the closure of the News of the World itself.
The News of the World was widely enjoyed in Britain for its weekly servings of salacious gossip. But plenty of pervs will have shed no tears over its departure, being inclined only to despise the paper for its “exposés” of people’s private lives, with sometimes devastating consequences.
Of course, over the three-decade life of the modern fetish scene, the News of the World was far from alone in making British kinksters targets of such exposés.
Sunday rivals the People and the Sunday Mirror, as well as the NoW’s daily stablemate The Sun, all pursued similar agendas, especially in the earlier days of the scene when fetish was less mainstream, and the tabloid obsession with celebrity scandal was not as all-consuming as it now is.
Indeed, we can thank today’s focus on the indiscretions of the rich and famous for taking much of the tabloid heat off ordinary pervs. These days, a penchant for dressing in latex or being whipped by dominatrixes is usually not enough to get you into the tabloids unless you are also a celebrity or some kind of public figure. Someone like Max Mosley, for example.
In 2008 Mosley, then president of Formula One racing’s international governing body, famously became the subject of a News of the World front-page splash about his participation in a BDSM session with five women in a London flat — which, if the story was to be believed, was a Nazi sex orgy.
But it was no such thing, and despite his embarrassment at revelations of his BDSM interests, ex-barrister Mosley turned out to be someone with both the balls and the financial resources to fight back. He sued the News of the World and won £60,000 in damages.
Max Mosley turned out to have both the balls and the financial resources to fight back. He sued the News of the World and won £60,000
After his success in the British Courts, he set out to persuade the European Court of Human Rights to oblige newspapers to notify their victims before printing such exposés. He lost that argument, but is by no means out of the fight; he is currently helping some claimants involved in phone-hacking cases against News International by guaranteeing their legal costs.
More recently, in June 2010, another motorsport boss figured in what seemed like a “made for the tabloids” story when British sports car racing team boss Robin Mortimer died while visiting the dungeon of legendary Belgian dominatrix Mistress Lucrezia.
The Fetishistas ran its own piece on this tragic incident, challenging the sensational and sometimes very obviously made-up “facts” reported by various tabloids. Lucrezia and another domme were arrested and went through months of hell before the Belgian authorities finally dropped the case against them, but the taint of their tabloid treatment may be harder to shake off.
Both of those stories depended for their “legs” on the involvement of public figures. But in the fetish scene’s earlier years, being publicly known was not a prerequisite for being “done over” by the gutter press.
During the 1980s and ’90s while I was at Skin Two, ordinary pervs were considered legitimate tabloid targets, and the extent of Skin Two’s connections in the scene meant we often knew the hapless victims of tabloid attention.
Fetish clubs had to be constantly wary of undercover infiltrators in search of scandal. After one club bust was featured in a Sunday scandal sheet, we heard that the police had been “persuaded” to carry out the raid on the basis that it would “look bad for them” if they didn’t.
If true, this suggested tabloids were not above putting pressure on police to take action they might not otherwise have taken, just to give the newspaper a better story.
In the mid-’90s I found myself right in the middle of a particularly sneaky tabloid sting that targetted a private house-party. It demonstrated just how much damage an exposé could do to an individual in a “sensitive” job.
It was a weekend and a popular fetish club night was taking place in London. When the club finished, a group of us were invited to carry on partying at the house of a married couple who were part of Skin Two’s inner circle.
Everyone thought that the two Australians who joined us at the house must be someone’s friends even though no one seemed to know them — otherwise how would they have got themselves invited?
To illustrate the decadent company my friends kept, the article included descriptions of a number of guests, among whom I recognised myself
But we all discovered just how wrong we were when, the following weekend, our hosts found themselves exposed in the Sunday Mirror for throwing a sex party. The Aussies had been undercover hacks who had tagged along with our group and by luck, got themselves a juicy story.
To illustrate the decadent company my friends kept, the article included descriptions of a number of the party guests, among whom I recognised myself. To be used, even anonymously, in such a story was a chilling experience — though of course it was my friends who really suffered.
The husband, a department head at a posh school, lost his job and kissed goodbye to a long and distinguished teaching career. Quite a price to pay for hosting what he thought was a private party for mates in his own home.
However, while this particular tabloid stitch-up was as despicable as they come, one early ’90s tabloid exposé linked to Skin Two had a better outcome for those principally involved.
In 1991 we partnered up with DeMask’s Steve English to co-host the very first Europerve party in Amsterdam. Among those attending was Marina Mowatt, a minor British royal who was 20-something in line to the English throne.
She happily posed for Tim Woodward’s camera at the party and we published a couple of his pictures in our report in the next Skin Two magazine. Shortly after the mag came out, the pictures turned up on the front page of the News of the World under the headline Royal At Rubber Orgy!
The paper had evidently sent a couple of undercover people to Amsterdam masquerading as fetish magazine reporters to do a number on the party, and the Skin Two pictures of Marina were the clincher. Certain key facts in their report were undeniable, but the article as a whole was in our view a gross misrepresentation of the event.
The newspaper had clearly achieved its aim: a front page exclusive about a British royal at an Amsterdam sex party. We were angry, but what could any of us do against the might of the News of the World? Well, one thing we could do was sue them for breach of copyright, because they had stolen Tim’s pictures of Marina. So we did.
And by standing our ground, we eventually secured a settlement that, among other things, paid for a very nice dinner for the Skin Two crew and Marina and her husband, who were great sports about the whole thing.
It was, by our measure, quite a result. But it didn’t change anyone’s attitude towards the News of the World and its ilk. We knew that what the paper had paid out was peanuts for them — a small price well worth paying for the front page exclusive they got out of it. It just brought it home to us how completely ruthless tabloids could be in pursuit of such stories.
And today? Well the News of the World may be gone but there is speculation that it won’t be too long before Murdoch replaces it with something very similar — The Sun on Sunday perhaps.
And even if that doesn’t happen, there are plenty of existing British tabloids all too ready to fill the gap. It’s a jungle out there, and the loss of one big predator won’t halt the feeding frenzy the rest are still engaged in.
We knew that what the paper had paid out was peanuts for them: a small price well worth paying for the front page exclusive they got out of it