Like many on here, I’ve been fascinated by the evidence being given by the various people that have been called to testify before the Leveson enquiry. Its brought back a few memories of my own experience with the tabloid press. If you can be arsed to read the next couple of paragraphs, I thought I’d share.
My story is completely insignificant compared to what’s going on at the moment. In the great scheme of things it’s not even comparable. I can’t imagine what the parents of Milly Dowler went through when they believed that their daughter was alive because some underhand journalist had deleted some of her voicemails to make way for more, just so that his editor could sell a few more papers.
What about the retired-schoolteacher neighbour of the murdered Bristol architect Jo Yeates? Most tabloids had him as guilty from the second he was wrongfully or mistakenly arrested as a suspect last year.
Not for one second am I implying that my little story is as serious as the phone-hacking scandal, but there are some similarities and it might give you an extra insight as to how some of these people work.
As many of you already know, four years ago, I was one of the candidates on a popular BBC TV reality show. Not a very good one I’ll admit, a bit limited and a bit out of my depth, but I made good TV and was a candidate none the less.
My time on the show in question was however, enough to get me one hour’s prime-time terrestrial television exposure in front of 7m viewers for five weeks in a row during the spring of 2008.
This, as I was warned by the BBC, generated a fair bit of press interest in me.
At the time that I was offered the place on the show I was warned about what might come along with it, so I opted to tell the BBC and the PR company appointed to ‘look after me’ everything in advance. Everything. Every little mistake, every little faux pas about some previous ‘errors of judgement’ in my adult past.
It was all fairly run of the mill stuff to most people. A couple of drunken punch-ups, a bit of shagging around and some social drug use. Not a big deal to many who will go through the same period in their mid-twenties and early thirties before they settle down, but the sort of stuff that’s bread and butter fodder for the tabloids, should you attempt to conceal it and they find out.
The PR company assigned to me for the duration were good enough to tell me about a month before the show aired that a lot of the stuff was likely to come out, because these things always did. I went off to sit my family down and have the uncomfortable conversation with them before they read about anything a little colourful about me that they hadn’t already been aware of.
Even as an adult, it’s not a pleasant thing to do. Have any of you had to sit down and tell your Mum you’ve taken ecstasy or snorted coke? I had to do the same thing with work, who had kept my job open for me while I filmed the show six months previously. I only had myself to blame, but it’s not nice.
At the time the first episode was aired in March 2008, I was 36 years old, had one failed marriage and divorce under my belt already. I was living with my new partner.
We’d just had our first child. I’d actually filmed the show with her seven-months pregnant, so the whole thing was already fairly unpopular at home and I’d already put a strain on our relationship because of it.
She was especially nervous because she has a nephew that had been in a relationship with a well-known female TV star and the salacious details of that had been splashed all over all the red tops about five years previously. She was worried because she had a better idea of what was coming than I did.
The first taste my family got of my newly found ‘fame’ was an 11.45pm telephone call from the PR company to alert me that the participant list for the show had been leaked. I could therefore expect to see my name in the papers the following day.
This was about two weeks ahead of the ‘official’ launch of the show which was now being hurriedly brought forward as a result of this ‘leak’
Anyone with a four-month old baby will tell you how popular late night telephone calls are anyway, but to be hit with this piece of information too was just marvellous. I sat up with my daughter on the sofa all night taking care of the night feeds as I was too nervous to sleep now.
At 6:00am the following morning, I made the trip to the newsagent to see what was happening. I admit, I was partially nervous and partially excited. There was actually some relief that the big secret I’d been carrying around for six months was finally out in the open.
I needn’t have worried. There was only one paragraph on page 16 of a popular tabloid that was hardly worthy of a midnight phone call. I was just a little confused by what was written.
“Former Soldier ‘SimonFromHarlow’ won a place on the show after battling a drug problem. Simon, now a satellite engineer was left emotionally scarred and troubled after serving in Bosnia and Northern Ireland but has turned his life around with a baby daughter. A show insider said “He’s had a lot of ups and downs and he’s been to rehab – he makes no bones about it”
Hmmmmn. I was as a soldier in the British Army for nine years and had served in Bosnia in Northern Ireland but I hadn’t left the Army ‘troubled’ at all. I wasn’t emotionally scarred and I had never set foot in any sort of rehab establishment ever. Drug problem? I’d just snorted a bit of coke and partied a bit in the past. It was all a bit weird. I see now that they were just setting up my ‘character’ and that this ‘background’ was going to follow me over the course of the next few weeks.
This was to be my first experience of embellished tabloid reporting.
In short, they write whatever they like and I was to learn as the weeks went on that there is very little you can do about it.
The following day, the official launch of the show was brought forward and all the participants were announced. This was just plain weird, seeing yourself splashed across the front and centre pages of newspapers and magazines, but I’ll admit it at the time it was a little exciting. I can see how people get caught up in it. Now everyone knew about it anyway and I could relax a bit.
Day three of my new-found media status gave me my first real taste of the journalism standards of some tabloid newspaper reporters. Step forward John Mahoney of The Daily Star.
I’m not sure if John Mahoney even exists or is just a random name that a lazy sub-editor had used to top and tail the article, but Mr Mahoney (or one of his colleagues) had ripped a picture of me from the Facebook site of one of my friends, Natalie and decided to write a story around it.
By write a story, I actually mean “Make something up”
My own social networking site was disabled for the duration for the show, but my friends had set up a ‘SimonFromHarlow’ appreciation site and as a result, the vultures were circling and had already started trawling the home pages of anyone that claimed to know me.
In the big scheme of things, the photo and the story were innocuous enough. It’s just that it was a pack of lies. Total fabrication, or as I like to refer to it:
“A load of fucking bollocks”
It was to be the first of many.
The photo showed me stood in a pub wearing a West Ham United away shirt. I was pointing to, and holding a bottle of ‘Cilit Bang’ It was taken in Birmingham just before the FA Cup semi-final of 2006, when I travelled up to see West Ham take on Middlesboro. It was taken a full fourteen months before I’d even filled out an application form for the TV show.
The real story was behind the picture is not that interesting. A good pal of mine had gone to the game in fancy dress as a joke. He’s loud anyway, so he went as the annoying shouty Cilit Bang’ ad-man ‘Barry Scott’ (Don’t ask) and that at some point during the day, I’d grabbed his prop bottle of Cilit Bang and was snapped doing so.
That’s it. Nothing. If you weren’t there, you wouldn’t have got it. A complete “You really had to be there” moment.
The story that appeared around it however, was nothing but a pack of lies. I’m just choosing this one as an example of many that were to follow over the next few weeks.
“West Ham fan SimonFromHarlow celebrated being picked for a ‘BBC Reality TV Show’ by getting hammered with his boozy pals at a West Ham game”
No he didn’t.
“At one stage Simon was so smashed, he shocked his friends by pretending to guzzle a bottle of super strength toilet cleaner”
No he didn’t.
“His madcap mates reckon the show’s host won’t know what will hit him when the ex Royal Artilleryman from Harlow, Essex roars onto the show”
Highly unlikely, considering the whole thing was done, dusted and in the can six months beforehand and most of them weren’t aware until the day before this article that I was even on it.
“They have blitzed website Facebook with wacky comments like “What’s the odds on a drunken Simon asking for a cuddle from the show’s host?”
Blitzed? There were ten comments on the site for the whole five weeks. Hardly ‘Blitzed’
“Another said “F*cking Hell, Simon! How are you going to look at the show’s host and not cave his head in? I’ll even vote for you as the text is free”
Nobody said that, or wrote it anywhere. Cave the show host’s head in? Why, because I’m an ex-soldier? Oh well done.
It does show a great understanding by the newspaper of the format of the show though, given that there is zero public input and therefore no texting in to vote for anyone whatsoever.
The only person that really got upset about this was my friend Natalie. We spoke on the telephone and she apologised for ‘having her photo taken from her website without her permission’ which she had no need to do. She was livid and wanted me to know she’d not sold it. I believed her immediately – she wasn’t the type.
Over the course of the next month or so things got interesting. During that time I was the subject of 18 more tabloid/gossip mag stories.
13 were total and complete fabrication and were completely and utterly untrue, written in the style above. (I threatened legal action over one of them)
4 had an element of truth to them, but were then spoiled by an untrue and unnecessary ‘salacious’ embellishment.
1 was reasonably true. (The one that I did myself and had copy approval over)
Everything that you read about anyone on a TV show, musician, politician or personality of any kind in a tabloid or gossip mag whether it is good or bad – take with a pinch of salt.
The morning after I was released from the show I was doing my contracted press junkets (you basically give the same interview 75 times in a row) and saw a slot for my favourite shit-rag The Daily Star. I point-blank refused to talk to them.
The PR company promised me that if I did, they would print a full retraction for the previous stories that they’d made up.
Once the retraction was agreed in principle, like a fucking mug I gave them an interview. The implication was that if I didn’t, they would probably continue to ‘Hound’ me.
That’s what you’re dealing with.
The promised retraction was never printed and the Daily Star claimed that an error had been made and that it had been ‘subbed out’ How fucking convenient. None of what I’d said to refute the previous stories in the interview was used, either.
The retraction offer was an outright lie. I knew as much, but the bottom line is that they don’t really care as long as they’re selling papers and unless you’re minted, the libel laws are a minefield if you want your day in court in this country. They know this too.
I didn’t pursue it any further. What was the point? My friends and family knew the real story and that was all that mattered. I was just some prick that had made a tit of himself on the telly.
I still sold out and made my own faustian pact with The Mirror Group by finishing up my own version of Mr Warhol’s ‘fifteen minutes’ by doing a with a deal to do a one-time only version of my story.
If I hadn’t, the implication was that a version in another rival paper was going to be run and would have been far worse for me – Or so they said.
Having been stung a few times already, I took some advice and fortunately got copy-approval over the content on this one, so at least some of the people who had been hurt about the lies written about me over the previous weeks got ‘sorted out’ both financially and in print.
I haven’t done anything with the media since and never, ever will again.
I don’t trust media types as far as I could throw them anymore and have refused every single offer since. There have been a few, usually around the time that the series rears it head again but they’re all met with an immediate ‘No’
I’m fully aware that even now if I had a small accident in the car and accidentally hit some wildlife on the way home, a story could still be run as “FORMER DRUGGED UP SOLDIER REALITY STAR GOES ON MAD ROAD RAGE BADGER KILLING SPREE”
I signed up for it and unfortunately, it now goes with the territory.
A little trick to observe to see if tabloid stories are telling the truth test are nailed-on, attributable quotes.
Anything that contains “An insider revealed…” or “Our source said…” are more than likely going to be an absolute pile of made up cack by some junior journalist, or sub-editor.
And you can fucking quote me on that.
Nobody is trying to restrict the freedom of the press, but a lot of people would prefer some truth in the stories written.
The tabloids seem to have a moral compass set in the 1950’s which means they feel they have the right to use underhand tactics to expose people’s ‘wrong-doing’ even if that ‘wrong-doing’ is considered by most of us to not even warrant a mention and the underhand tactics used to expose it are far worse.
If its run of the mill, a few changes can be made to spice it up.
Look at the way The Daily Mail hit Hugh Grant with a hatchet job piece yesterday because he dared to speak out against them the day before. They don’t like him, so he’s ‘fair game’ What a crock of shit. Playground stuff. Nasty, personal sniping.
Since when was two consenting adults having a sexual relationship and a baby in any of anyone else’s business because one or both of them is famous?
Who decided on our behalf that footballers have to be ‘role models’ for young people anywhere other than on the football pitch?
I hope some good comes out of this inquiry, but there’s a lot of truth in the saying that society gets the press that it deserves. While people keep on buying it, they’ll keep going after it and will keep making it up if they don’t find any.
Me though? I’ve joined a long line of people who will never buy a tabloid newspaper ever again.