How the United Kingdom’s tabloids go about it

Roy Greenslade


The printed issues of Britain’s most popular national newspapers, known as red-tops, have suffered substantial losses in circulation since the arrival of the internet. In the course of the 19 years after 2000, daily sales fell by 69%, while Sunday sales fell by 76%.' Although they have benefitted from significant rises in online readerships, the levels of revenue generated online have been but a fraction of those enjoyed from print. The combined losses of circulation and advertising income are serious.

In order to deal with the decline in profits, the newspapers’ managers have instituted regular cuts in editorial budgets. Newsroom staffing has been severely reduced, and there has been a marked decrease in the resources allocated to journalism that does not produce copy on a daily, sometimes an hourly, basis. Investigative journalism is labour intensive. Publishers have therefore regarded investigative journalism as a luxury. Nevertheless, five red-tops - The Sun, Daily Mirror, Sunday Mirror, Sun on Sunday and The People2 — have managed to carry out many investigations in the public interest. The Daily Star and Daily Star Sunday have not.

In the last edition of this book, in 2008, I identified Britain’s largest-selling title, the News of the World (No IT), as ‘the leading investigative newspaper’ among the red-top titles. I pointed out that its reporters had taken ‘full advantage of the developing technological advances’ while pushing ‘at the ethical boundaries’. In 2011, it was closed down because some of its staff had not only crossed those ethical boundaries but had crossed legal boundaries as well. Several of its journalists had routinely intercepted the mobile phone voicemail messages of many hundreds of people in what became known as the ‘phonehacking scandal’. After a series of criminal trials, four members of staff were imprisoned, with others receiving suspended jail sentences.

These incidents, and the resulting aftermath, notably the Leveson Inquiry, had a far-reaching impact on investigative journalism by the popular press, effectively reducing the frequency and potency of ‘exposures’ - usually involving celebrities — that had previously been meat and drink for Sunday red-tops and their daily stablemates. Nor was the hacking scandal the only problem facing editors. Changes to several laws - including the Régulation of Investigatory Powers Act, the Bribery Act and the Data Protection Act — inhibited tabloidstyle journalism, as did interpretations of the right to privacy enshrined in the 1998 Human Kights Act. It brought English law into line with the European Convention on Human Rights. Despite these pressures, editors continued to encourage investigative work. This chapter will consider the history of red-top investigative journalism, the context in which phone-hacking occurred, a taxonomy of the methods used and a look at recent investigations.

Pioneers of the ‘dark arts’

Misbehaviour by popular newspaper journalists did not begin in 2006, when the phone-hacking phenomenon emerged in public. It was common from the Second World War onwards. The News of the World pushed way beyond boundaries regarded elsewhere as unacceptable.

‘Fishing expeditions’

There is no direct reference in the Editors’ Code of Practice to fishing expeditions, the practice of going undercover or using subterfuge in the hope of finding something untoward. However, the regulatory bodies, the Press Complaints Commission (1995—2014) and the Independent Press Standards Organisation (2014 to date), have ruled against papers using last resort investigative methods on the off chance of landing a story. The precedent was set in 2001 when the PCC censured the News of the World for covertly filming a private Christmas party for the cast of the TV series, Emmerdale. The Commission ruled that it was an infringement of the party-goers’ privacy because the paper had no prior knowledge of a transgression that it would be in the public interest to reveal. Guy (now Lord) Black, the PCC’s director, said at the time: ‘The code isn’t there to stop legitimate investigation; it is there to stop fishing expeditions’ (‘News of the World censured for secret video’, The Guardian, 17 April 2001; PCC Report 53. At html?article=MjAyOQ==&type=). That proved to be a landmark ruling, effectively closing the door on journalists setting off on investigations merely on a hunch or a whim.

‘Blagging’ information

‘Blagging’, the custom of obtaining information over the phone through impersonation, is well known to journalists from their earliest days in the trade. It is unlikely that most refer to it as blagging or that they see much harm in the practice. It involves pretending to be someone you are not - a council official, perhaps, or hospital clerk or police officer - so that the person at the other end of the line can be persuaded to divulge confidential information. Down the years, many journalists, on local papers as well as nationals, have probably indulged in infrequent blagging, regarding it as a necessary way to obtain vital information in a society regarded as overly secret.

However, it is clearly an act of subterfuge and the Editors’ Code of Practice (Clause lOii) expressly forbids ‘engaging in misrepresentation or subterfuge’to access material unless it can be justified ‘in the public interest and then only when the material cannot be obtained by other means’. Nor should journalists think they can circumvent the rule by asking someone else to do it on their behalf because the same clause precludes the use of‘agents or intermediaries’ to engage in subterfuge.

During the phone-hacking saga, it emerged that the Neu's of the World used blagging persistently to obtain sensitive personal information about people in public life, particularly celebrities, in which there was no discernible public interest reason for doing so. They also out-sourced the work to freelance investigators, blagging specialists, with inside knowledge of the security vulnerabilities of certain institutions, notably mobile phone companies.

Phone hacking

The phenomenon of phone hacking (the interception of mobile phone voicemail messages), first surfaced in public in August 2006 with the arrest of the NoWs Royal Editor, Clive Goodman, and a freelance investigator and selfconfessed blagger, Glenn Mulcaire. They were charged under the Regulation of Investigative Powers Act with accessing the voicemails of members of the Royal Household. In January 2007, both men pleaded guilty. Goodman was sentenced to four months in jail and Mulcaire, who faced extra charges relating to five other people, including Gordon Taylor, the chief executive of the Professional Footballers Association, got six months. It was revealed in court that the newspaper had paid Mulcaire more than /(100,000 for his services (The Guardian, 26 January 2007. At newsoftheworld .pressandpublishing 1).

On the day of the hearing, the Noir’s editor, Andy Coulson, resigned but insisted he knew nothing of the crimes. Two months later, Les Hinton, the chief executive of the newspaper’s publisher, Rupert Murdoch’s News International, told a parliamentary committee that Goodman was the only reporter guilty of hacking. A ‘full, rigorous internal investigation’, he suggested, had found no evidence of other staff being involved (Davies, 2014: 17). Despite widespread scepticism across Fleet Street about that statement, proof of its falsity took years to emerge. The key which unlocked the truth was the discovery that Gordon Taylor, chief executive of the Professional Footballers’ Association, had been paid /(700,000 after he had launched a breach of privacy claim against News International. The Guardian’s Nick Davies wondered why Taylor’s lawyer had managed to obtain such a disproportionately large settlement and why it had been paid so discreetly. Had the ‘rogue reporter’ defence concealed a wider use of hacking at the paper? A source contacted him suggesting it had, and Davies began a painstaking, lengthy investigation.

Meanwhile, the No W7found itself embroiled in a separate controversy which was to have far-reaching implications. On 30 March 2008, the paper carried a story which occupied almost the entire front page, headlined ‘Fl Boss Has Sick Nazi Orgy With 5 Hookers’. It alleged that Max Mosley, president of the Paris-based motoring organisation responsible for licensing Formula One racing, had hired five women to indulge in sado-masochistic activities with a Nazi theme. Readers were reminded that Mosley’s father, Oswald Mosley, had been the leader of a fascist party' in Britain in the 1930s. The ‘investigation’ followed a familiar № W pattern in the sense that it was a commercial deal. The paper was tipped off about the impending ‘orgy’ by the husband of one of the women. It was agreed that the couple would receive ,£25,000 in return for her filming the session with a pinhole camera concealed in the tie she wore as part of her costume. Some of the exchanges between Mosley and the women were in German.

On the day of publication, the paper posted video clips of the session on its website. But it had not translated the German dialogue, thereby wrongly assuming the Nazi element. This mistake was to prove costly when Mosley sued the paper on the grounds that it had invaded his privacy. The paper’s second error was in deciding to halve the fee it had promised to the couple, which resulted in the woman refusing to give evidence at the high court hearing in July 2008 (Thurlbeck, 2015: 293). The judge ruled that the paper had failed to justify its Nazi claim and, without that, there was no public interest justification for the story. Mosley was awarded £60,000 and News International was required to pick up the costs. Mosley, however, outraged by the disclosure of his private life and the fact that the video clips were widely available across the internet, was anything but finished with the paper. He would go on to underwrite the legal costs of hacking victims (Davies, 2014: 261) and, following the Leveson Inquiry, would later fund a regulatory body' in opposition to the one favoured by most newspaper publishers.

Davies, who sympathised with Mosley’s plight, made headway' with his hacking inquiries throughout 2008 and during the course of the next six months. They culminated, in July 2009, with his revelation in The Guardian of the secret payment to Taylor. In follow-up articles, he alleged that several NoW staff, including junior executives, had been guilty of hacking. Most of the victims he identified were celebrities or people who worked on their behalf. The police treated the stories with scorn and refused to investigate, even though hacking victims started to pursue civil claims against News International for breaches of privacy. Inside the NoW7, however, the drip-drip-drip of Davies’s exposures over the course of the following months was taken seriously', prompting the suspensions of some staff at the end of 2010.

It was in January 2011 that Scotland Yard finally launched a full-scale investigation into phone hacking, and the turning point came six months later with Daviess report in The Guardian that police had found evidence suggesting a mobile phone belonging to a missing, murdered teenager, Milly Dowler, had been hacked on behalf of the No IV (The Guardian, 11 April 2011). It was alleged that some messages had been deleted, thereby giving false hope to her family that she might still be alive? This resulted in high-level resignations at News International and Scotland Yard and announcements by advertisers that they would withdraw their advertising from the NoIF. Murdoch responded by closing the paper, and the last issue was published on 10 July 2011.

The closure made no difference to the clamour for an inquiry, and the prime minister, David Cameron, came under intense political pressure to act against the popular press, not least because he had appointed Coulson as the Tory party’s director of communications in July 2007, just six months after Coulsons resignation as News of the World editor. Coulson continued in that role when Cameron became PM in May 2010. Publicity over hacking led him to resign from the post in January 2011. Cameron announced a judicial review into 'the culture, practices and ethics of the British press’ to be chaired by Lord Justice Leveson. It was a landmark moment for newspapers, and its outcome has continued to be divisive.

The Leveson Report: a chilling effect?

Evidence given at the public hearings during the Leveson Inquiry and the subsequent publication of the Leveson Report in November 2012 revealed a willingness to break rules, both ethical and legal, in order to maximise sales. Among the practices it highlighted were intrusions into privacy, the widespread use of blagging, impersonation, subterfuge, entrapment, harassment and surveillance, often connected to investigative journalism.

In its conclusion, the Report made only a single reference to investigative journalism, arguing that the press should be free ‘to hold power to account, to conduct investigative journalism in the public interest’, adding that it was necessary for the press ‘to be accountable to the public in whose interests it claims to be acting and must show respect for the rights of others to such extent as legitimate public interest does not justify otherwise’ (Leveson: 1459). This stress on ‘public interest’ as the justification for journalistic investigations underlined a clause in the existing Editors’ Code of Practice, which was adopted in its entirety by the new self-regulatory body that emerged in the aftermath of the Report, the Independent Press Standards Organisation. It was similar in many respects to the previous regulator, the Press Complaints Commission, but with the availability to impose harsher penalties, including fines, for breaches of the Code. Despite the relatively tame compromise over the regulatory process, this proved an important moment for the popular press. Popular newspaper publishers and editors begrudgingly accepted that their culture had to change. They were not alone in complaining about supposed restrictions on their freedom. Some editors and journalists from the quality press were also concerned about the possible chilling effects on investigative journalism (Lashmar, 2013. At opendemocracyuk/path-to-hell-investigative-journalists-view-of-leveson/; Ben Webster, The Times, 31 December 2012. At leveson-will-have-chilling-effect-on-journalism-bvwmzn52ghb).

Throughout the Leveson Inquiry, it was largely assumed that phone hacking was confined to the NoW, despite the screening on 24 July 2011 of a BBC2 Newsnight investigation which alleged that celebrities’ voicemails had been hacked by the Sunday Mirror. This claim was rejected by Trinity' Mirrors then-chief executive, Sly Bailey, as ‘unsubstantiated’ (Leveson: 169). She refused to hold an internal inquiry into the allegation, telling the Inquiry: ‘I don’t think it’s a way to conduct a healthy organisation to go around conducting investigations when there’s no evidence that our journalists have been involved in phone hacking’ (The Guardian 24 September 2014. At media/greenslade/2014/sep/24/trinity-mirror-sundaymirror).

Just days before the Leveson Report’s publication, four phone-hacking claims were filed against Trinity Mirror (The Guardian, 23 October 2012). These turned out to be the tip of the iceberg. Over the following years, there were more than 100 civil claims of voicemail interception against the Daily Mirror, Sunday Mirror and Sunday People (Press Gazette, 25 February 2019. At By May 2019, Reach, the renamed Trinity Mirror company, had paid out ^Zj75 million to claimants, while the bill for News UK, publisher of the No W and The Sun, was /)400 million (BBC. At Matters worsened for Reach in January 2020 with the news that the Sunday People, like the No И/ had targeted the mobile phone of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler in 2002 (Byline Investigates, 26 January 2020. At mirror/2020/l/22/a6qgcu489qri8ui5okbddolzez2q3s).

During the Leveson Inquiry, and in various parliamentary select committee hearings, it emerged that red-top story-gathering was motivated entirely by the desire of publishers, editors and their editorial staffs to maximise sales. There was too little oversight of editorial practices, a turning of a blind eye. The Leveson Report is sprinkled with references to the absence of internal governance at popular newspapers and a consequent failure to police journalistic ethics. It recommended that the problem should be addressed by publishers (Leveson, 2012). There was no industry-wide code of ethics until 1991. It was introduced when the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) replaced the Press Council. Editors and their journalists had previously tended to abide by a rough-and-ready application of‘custom and practice’, with individual editors deciding what was fair and what was not. Many decisions were taken on an ad hoc basis. Public interest was sometimes sacrificed on the altar of circulation.

The formation of the Editors’ Code of Practice, and its policing by the PCC, did change the culture, for a period at least, by underlining the public interest requirement for publication (Shannon, 2001). It was also agreed that editors would not openly criticise the PCC’s adjudications, which were published in the offending paper without comment.

Investigative journalism, as practised by the red-tops, presented particular problems because of a lack of transparency about the reporting methods employed. While it was accepted that the confidentiality of sources had to be respected, other aspects of certain investigations remained impenetrable. If reporters had strayed across ethical boundaries, it proved difficult for those seeking to hold them to account to discover exactly how they had acted. What follows is a considered updating of the taxonomy of methods published in this book’s previous edition.

Dark arts

Surveillance technology' has grown ever more sophisticated throughout the past 30 years, enabling the virtually undetectable use of covert recording and filming. It has been enthusiastically employed by red-top journalists engaged in one of the darkest of the dark arts: entrapment. Sometimes known as a ‘sting operation’, the method has often created controversy, with victims complaining that they were encouraged by journalists into committing illegal or unethical acts that they would not have done without being induced to do so. Most red-tops have entrapped people at some time and justified their use of deception by arguing it was in the public interest and thereby compliant with the Editors’ Code of Practice and the law. However, it is not always easy to divine what is, and is not, entrapment. Subterfuge does not, of itself, equate to entrapment. Two high-profile cases involving Members of Parliament (MPs) illustrate the point. In 2014, the Sunday Mirror alleged that a Conservative minister, Brooks Newmark, had sent sexually explicit text messages, including an indecent picture of himself, to a young woman (‘Tory minister quits over sex photo’, Sunday Mirror, 28 September 2014). The ‘woman’ was an undercover journalist posing as a female party activist and using a fake Twitter account. He claimed he had been entrapped but, after further messages claim to light, he resigned his ministerial post. An inquiry by the Independent Press Standards Organisation cleared the paper of entrapment, but its use of subterfuge remained questionable (‘Ipsos ruling on the Sunday Mirror over Brooks Newmark sting is flawed’, The Guardian, 26 March 2015).

In 2016, the Sunday Mirror revealed that the prominent Labour MP Keith Vaz had cavorted with two male prostitutes and offered to buy them cocaine (‘Labour MP Keith Vaz and the prostitutes at his flat’, Sunday Mirror 4 September 2016). Although the two men were paid by the newspaper and agreed to film the encounter with Vaz, the newspaper denied that it was a case of entrapment. It had acted in the public interest. Vaz thought it ‘deeply disturbing’ that the pair were paid and argued that he had been entrapped (‘MP to report Keith Vaz to Commons Standards watchdog’, BBC, 5 September 2016. At www. He resigned his chairmanship of the Home Affairs Select Committee, was later suspended from the Commons and did not stand for parliament in 2019. It is possible to argue that the Newmark story did involve entrapment, while the Vaz story did not. Both cases could be argued either way.

Faking it . . . over and over again

The most frequent use of entrapment over recent decades was by Netos of the World, especially its investigations editor, Mazher Mahmood (see Faking It). His success encouraged reporters on rival red-tops to engage in similar tactics. Until his imprisonment in 2016, Mazher Mahmood was known for using disguises while carrying out undercover reporting, revelling in his nickname, ‘the Fake Sheikh’, which he gained due to his penchant for dressing up in Arab robes to fool his targets (Mahmood, 2008). The humour was not shared by scores of his victims, some of whom ended up in jail, nor by several judges and lawyers who condemned his methods on the grounds that most of his work depended on offering people inappropriate inducements to break the law and thus providing his papers - News of the World (1991—2011) and Sun on Sunday (2012—14) — with a public interest justification for publication.

Judicial concern at Mahmood’s methods was aired first in 1999 at the trial of the Earl of Hardwicke on a charge of supplying cocaine. Mahmood posed as an Arab businessman who was prepared to spend /(100,000 buying a substantial part of Hardwicke s scooter franchise. Mahmood coaxed the peer into buying cocaine to celebrate their deal. After listening to the evidence, the jury foreman handed a note to the judge on behalf of his fellow jurors saying they thought Hardwicke was a victim of entrapment and had acted under ‘extreme provocation’ (The Independent, 23 September 1999). The judge reflected his agreement by giving Hardwicke a lenient suspended jail sentence. At the time, TV actor John Alford was serving a nine-month prison sentence for supplying cannabis to Mahmood, who had posed as an Arab prince pledging to win him a Hollywood movie role. At his trial, the court heard Alford had been completely taken in by the ‘elaborate . . . well-planned subterfuge’ (BBC, 24 May 1999. At .stm). Several of Mahmood’s victims - all well-known people - who did not end up in court complained about being fooled by beguiling fake scenarios in which there were made tempting offers to misbehave or speak out of turn.

There were other cases that should have alerted the police and the Crown Prosecution Service to inquire into Mahmood’s investigatory methods. One of the most contentious was the alleged plot to kidnap Victoria Beckham and hold her to ransom (‘Posh kidnap: We stop crime of the century’, News of the World, 3 November 2002). Five supposed culprits were arrested in a dramatic swoop by armed police following ‘evidence’ provided by Mahmood and held in custody for seven months before the start of their trial. At that hearing, an embarrassed prosecution lawyer announced that the case was being dropped because the main witness, who had several convictions to his name, had been paid f 0,000 by the News of the World and his evidence would therefore be regarded as unreliable (‘Truth behind the Beckham “kidnap”plot’, 77ie Observer, 8 June 2003. At pressandpublishing).

After the closure of the News of the World, Mahmood joined the newly launched Sun on Sunday, where his first major contribution was yet another sting operation. But the moment of truth was around the corner. In June 2013, the Sun on Sunday boasted of a ‘world exclusive* under Mahmoods byline. Tulisa Contostavlos, a singer and TV personality, had agreed to sell him a quantity of cocaine (‘Tulisa’s cocaine deal shame’, Sun on Sunday, 2 June 2013). She was immediately arrested and later charged with supplying Class A drugs, which she denied. The following week, in an unusual move, the Sunday People detailed how Mahmood had pulled off his scoop in a piece sympathetic to Contostavlos s plight (‘Tulisa £8m Bollywood deal sting: Tricksters posed as movie moguls in elaborate con’, Sunday People, 9 June 2013). Her trial, in July 2014, collapsed when the judge said he thought there were ‘strong grounds to believe’ Mahmood had lied at an earlier hearing (BBC, 21 July 2014. At Mahmood was suspended by the Sun on Sunday while he and the paper waited to see whether the police would charge him. During that suspension, a Panorama investigation was screened, which alleged that Mahmood paid people to procure drugs that his targets would later be exposed as supplying. It also accused him of making offers to people with no recent history of drug misuse of scarcely believable career opportunities who were then pressured to obtain him cocaine (The Fake Sheikh Exposed, BBC1, 12 November 2014). Mahmood was finally charged with conspiracy to pervert the course ofjustice in September 2015 and went to trial the following year. He was found guilty of tampering with evidence and sentenced to 15 months in jail (The Guardian, 21 October 2016). He was formally dismissed by his newspaper.

The reality: what the red-tops did investigate

It is noticeable that very few red-top investigations have appeared on awards shortlists in recent years. In October 2015, the chairman of the British Press Awards judging panel, Dominic Ponsford, spoke of it being ‘particularly good to see so many entries this year from the tabloid end of the newspaper market, which does not always get the credit it deserves for campaigning and investigative journalism". Yet, after the initial trawl through the entries, no red-top appeared on the shortlist for the investigation-of-the-year category. But Ponsford did have a point. Despite dwindling editorial budgets, and accepting the cavils mentioned previously, there has been investigative content. Here is a look at some examples.

Daily Mirror: intruding into the Queen’s privacy

The Daily Mirror’s reputation for high-quality investigative journalism was built around the work of two outstanding journalists: John Pilger, in the 1960s and 1970s, and Paul Foot, in the 1980s and early 1990s. Among Pilgers best work were his reports on social division within Britain and about war crimes in Vietnam, Cambodia and Biafra (Hagerty, 2003: 104; Seymour and Seymour, 2003). In Foots weekly column, he exposed several miscarriages of justice cases (as previously). Foot was fired from the Mirror in 1993 after writing a column critical of the incoming management for making several of his colleagues redundant. A couple of years later, the Mirror launched a Foot-like column. Initially called Sorted, and written by Andrew Penman and Gary Jones, it concentrated on exposing fraudsters and rogue traders. Over the following years, with regular changes of Penman’s partners and occasional changes of title, the column won an appreciative audience and garnered several awards. In July 2013, Penman went solo, and his ‘Penman Investigates’ column, despite its placement towards the back of the newspaper, is regarded as a key component of the Mirror’s content. Although somewhat disparagingly described in the industry trade magazine as an ‘intrepid sleuth, who earns a living by doorstepping low-life conmen’ (Press Gazette, 11 November 2006), there is a clear public service raison d’être for his column. For example. Penman’s covert filming of a gang who preyed on unemployed people desperate to obtain heavy' goods vehicle licences led to their conviction for fraud and prompted the judge to remark: ‘It is not often that I get the chance to congratulate journalists, but this was a genuine piece of investigative journalism’ (Daily Mirror, 26 February' 2014).

Outside of Penman’s column, there were other investigations, sometimes involving undercover reporting. By' far the most controversial was the infiltration of Buckingham Palace in 2003 by reporter Ryan Parry, who spent two months working as a footman (‘Buckingham Palace’s extraordinary secrets revealed by fake footman’, 19 November 2003. At real-life-stories/buckingham-palace-queen-tupperware-philip-13663437). After the Mirror published details and pictures across more than 20 pages, Palace officials moved swiftly' to prevent further revelations by' going to court and winning a permanent injunction (The Guardian, ‘Mirror reporter breached palace contract’, 20 November 2003. At nov/20/pressandpublishing.mirror). The paper, having agreed to accept the injunction, contributed /£5,000 to the Queen’s legal costs (Daily Telegraph, 24 November 2003. At unction .html).

The following month, another Mirror reporter, Nick Sommerlad, revealed he had spent five weeks working as a security guard at Yarl’s Wood, a refugee asylum centre. While there, he witnessed examples of racism and violence against detainees (Daily Mirror, ‘Mirror reporter lands job as security guard at asylum centre . . . and discovers a culture of abuse, racism and violence that SHOULD appall us all’, 8 December 2003). Sommerlad presented a 28-page dossier about his findings to an official inquiry headed by the prisons ombudsman, who recommended a set of remedial actions (At www.ppo., pdf). A search through the Mirrors files from 2008 to 2019 revealed a host of what could be termed low-level investigations. Among them were inquiries into racism among police officers, internet pornography, pension benefits for corporate managers, high railway fares, landlords demanding sex from female tenants and fire service cuts. Two stood out. In 2016, an investigation into unsafe tumble dryers earned Martin Bagot a place on the shortlist for investigative journalist of the year (‘Killer in the kitchen: tumble dryer fires investigation’, Daily Mirror 9 February, 2016. At killer-tumble-dryers-alert-figures-7340981). And in 2018, Russell Myers filed several lengthy reports after spending eight days inside North Korea (‘Inside Kim’s Korea: Mirror spends eight days in the world’s most secretive nation", Daily Mirror 14 September 2018. At inside-kim-jong-uns-north-13240416).

The Sun: a rapid turnover of low-level probes

Unlike the Mirror, The Sun does not have a rich history of investigative journalism. Its editors have preferred to concentrate their resources on the rapid turnover of news stories rather than long-term projects. Although the paper has run many campaigns, usually on emotive subjects (Help Our Heroes in 2007 to raise money for wounded British servicemen; Give Us Shelter in 2015, which pressured the government to halt the closing of women’s refuges and a 2014 partnership with breast cancer charity CoppaFeel), these have not been linked to investigations. In evidence to the Leveson Inquiry, a Sun executive listed four investigations as examples of its work (Leveson, 2012: 459-460). They included the exposure of a private detective who swindled money from the fund set up to find the missing girl Madeleine McCann (‘Maddie fraudster nicked’, The Sun, 25 November 2009) and the exposure of a court clerk who was taking money from drivers to delete convictions from their records (‘Court in the act — clerk brags of £500 bribes to wipe records of dangerous drivers’, Hie Sun, 4 and 19 August 2011). This was especially interesting because the reporter was given permission by the editor and legal manager to offer the clerk £500 and film the transaction, even though it contravened the Bribery Act 2010. But the public interest justification was obvious, and the clerk was eventually convicted under that same act and imprisoned for six years.

Most of The Sun’s post-Leveson investigative content has not tended to involve lengthy reporting commitments. Much more significant was an investigation by the paper’s consumer editor, Daniel Jones, into the link between Britain’s biggest charity for pensioners and an energy company (‘How Age UK pocketed £6m bung from E.ON and pushed expensive power deals to OAPs’, 4 February 2016. At It was given page one treatment and was one of the rare occasions in which a Sun investigation was shortlisted by the British Press Awards.

Sunday Mirror: revelations of sex and dustbins

Although the Keith Vaz story was the Sunday Mirrors most memorable exposure of a politician for his sexual peccadilloes, it published two somewhat similar tales. In 2014, the Conservative MP Mark Menzies resigned his post as a ministerial aide after the paper revealed his relationship with a man (‘Tory MP quits in drugs & rent boy scandal’, Sunday Mirror, 30 March 2014). And in 2018, a Conservative MP, Andrew Griffiths, stepped down as a junior minister the day the paper reported on his sending explicit text messages to two female constituents (‘Married Tory minister quits over 2,000 sex texts’, Sunday Mirror, 15 July 2018). These were conventional red-top ‘investigations’ in the sense that they relied on an informant tipping off the paper. An altogether different, and controversial, method was employed to reveal what kind of nappies were used in the household of the then-Conservative party leader, David Cameron. The Sunday Mirror trawled through his dustbin to discover, ostensibly, whether its contents matched his public commitment to recycling (‘Tory Dave’s nappygate: Cam’s bin rumbled’, Sunday Mirror, 18 March 2007). Yet two weeks earlier, when questioned at a select committee hearing about whether it was fair to rifle through people’s bins, the paper’s managing editor replied: ‘We do not go through people’s bins. We have never found much material there worth publishing’ (DCMS. At cmselect/cmcumeds/uc375-i/uc37502.htm 6 March 2007). Aside from sex, politicsandwaste disposal, the SunddyMirrorhasinvestigatedfurtherafield. In2011, it carried a moving report from Somalia on the poverty and starvation suffered by people persecuted by ‘Al Qaeda warlords’. Labelled as an investigation, it was carried across pages 16and 17 (Sunday Mirror, 14 August 2011. At www.mirror. co. uk/news/uk-news/sunday-mirror-investigation-how-drought-147439).

The People: trying to link royalty to sex

The sex-and-celebrity agenda of the Sunday People, preferably linked, even if tangentially, to royalty, played a large part in its choice of investigative content. One revelation involved a claim that a male Tory MP had sexually assaulted a male Labour MP (‘Tory MP’s sex attack on Labour MP in taxi’, Sunday People, 5 November 2017), while another, looking into what it called ‘a sex-predator culture’ in parliament, recorded a researcher’s claims about being sexually assaulted on more than one occasion by ‘lusting male politicians’ (‘MP took Viagra pill, then groped me’, Sunday People, 3 March 2013).

None of these stories, although tagged as investigations, merited the description. However, the paper produced photographic evidence to back up its undercover inquiry into human trafficking (‘Busted: Nine held as we smash human smuggling gang’, Sunday People, 20 May 2012). It also exposed Chinese laboratories producing the drug known as Spice (‘Spice trail to China’, Sunday People, 16 April 2017). Arguably its best investigation, which began by exploring the army’s failure to hold an inquest into the death of one soldier, led to the discovery that six serving or former members of the same battalion had died from suspected suicide in seven years — more than any other regiment (‘Mother’s fury as six-year wait for military inquest of Afghan war hero’, Sunday People, 25 November 2018).

If there is a disagreement over what constitutes ‘investigative journalism’ (Bernstein, 1977: 25; Hanna, 2005: 123) and even about the term’s relevance (Pilger, 2014), then it is even harder to pin down its applicability when confronted with claims by red-tops that their stories should be regarded as investigations. Does a tip-off that X is up to no good and a rapid check that X is indeed misbehaving merit the description? Does ferreting in someone’s dustbin and discovering something untoward amount to an investigation? Does paying someone to dish the dirt on a friend qualify? Editors often chose to append the term ‘investigation’ to stories that did not merit the description. Nevertheless, amid the celebrity kiss-and-tell dross, there has been some excellent public service work.


  • 1 July-Dec 2000, total average daily sale of The Sun, Daily Mirror and Daily Star. 6,400,991. July-Dec 2019 total: 1,978,729. July-Dec 2000, total average Sunday sale of News of the World. Sunday Mirror and The People: 7,432,523. July-Dec 2019, total average Sunday sale of Stiti on Sunday, Sunday Mirror, The People and Star on Sunday: 1,755,806. Source: ABC
  • 2 The People is generally known now as the Sunday People.
  • 3 Milly Dowler, aged 13, vanished on 21 March 2002 on her way home from school in Weybridge, Surrey. Her remains were discovered on 18 September in Yateley, Hampshire. On 23 June 2001, a convicted murderer, Levi Bellfield, was found guilty of abducting and murdering Milly.


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