This post originally appeared in VICE UK
In 2011, Rich Peppiatt shot into the national conscience when he sensationally quit his job as a hack at the DailyStar, saying that the paper's Islamophobic agenda, which led to the spinning of largely untrue stories, was too much to bear.
Before that, he would have been known only to the readers of the Star, who may have recognized his byline from made-up "news" stories which he—in his own words—plucked from his ass. They may even have recognized his face from the times he dressed up as a John Lennon, a vampire, a Mexican, Noel Gallagher, Saint George (twice), Santa Claus, Aleksandr the Meerkat, the Stig, and a transvestite Alex Reid for their amusement. They wouldn't have recognized him from the time he walked around in public in a burka all day for an article.
Publishing his resignation letter in the Guardian, he wrote, "You may have heard the phrase, 'The flap of a butterfly's wings in Brazil sets off a tornado in Texas.' Well, try this: 'The lies of a newspaper in London can get a bloke's head caved in down an alley in Bradford.'"
He became part of the story again when he testified to the Leveson Inquiry about the culture of bullshit at tabloid papers. Now he's entering the public eye once more with a film, One Rogue Reporter, in which he gets his revenge on crappy newspaper editors through a series of pranks. Some of them fall a bit flat, such as papping the guy behind the Mail Online's side bar of shame—giving him a taste of his own medicine, geddit?—or putting a dildo on Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre's doorstep because of the guy's prudish editorial style.
However, you do get to see former News of the World chief reporter Neville Thurlbeck chatting up a masseuse for an undercover story in a completely cringe-worthy manner while completely naked. The final prank—presenting the ex-editor of the Sun with his own allegedly philandering text messages while he believes he is innocently being interviewed for a documentary about kiss 'n' tell stories—is worth the wait. I spoke to Rich about the film and leaving life as a sleazy tabloid hack behind him.
VICE: Tell me about quitting the Daily Star.
Rich Peppiatt: What always really upset me was the anti-Islam stuff. The Daily Star had a real hard-on for anti-Muslim stories. They were putting things on the front page like, "The English Defence League are the current political party." I remember going to an EDL rally as a reporter and the minute they found out I was from the Daily Star they started picking me up and holding me aloft like I was their hero or something. They saw the Daily Star as being their newspaper and that's when I just thought, Jesus fucking Christ, what am I doing with my life that these morons are lauding me as their voice? And so it was things like that that built up and up and eventually I sort of snapped.
Why didn't you quit earlier on?
I certainly don't hold myself up as some hero of the piece, because I think most people wouldn't have lasted as long as I did [two and a half years]. They would have left the first time they got asked to wear a burka. I think that certainly questions my own moral integrity. It's something I still think about. I think it was cowardice. I was too scared to stand up for myself and too scared to risk my career. I was far too interested in climbing up the greasy pole. It's a very competitive industry and I'm a competitive person, but in the process I completely sold myself down the river and it came to a point where I didn't like who I was. I wasn't happy and I was depressed. It's taken me a long time to get back to a place that feels like something more true to me.
In One Rogue Reporter you give a number of different tabloid editors a taste of their own medicine. Which was your favorite?
The Kelvin MacKenzie prank just because he walks into every punch that I threw at him. Even I couldn't believe just quite how much he was digging his own grave, so that was the most satisfying certainly. The moment when he finally recognizes that what is being read out to him are his own text messages is certainly enjoyable for the audience. I could see by the glint in his eye when all of a sudden the panic set in and he thought, Hang on—this isn't what I thought it was, this is me isn't it. For me though the constant battle was not to laugh and ruin the whole thing.
Were you tempted to sell them to a newspaper?
I don't really think that there are many newspapers that would want Kelvin MacKenzie's texts and even less that would want to buy them off of me.
Why wouldn't they want to publish his texts?
Because there's this thing that's colloquially called the "no-pissing pact," where newspaper editors don't go after each other's private lives. It's a long-standing tradition.
How did you decide what pranks to do?
I went over the Leveson Inquiry and based it on the people who pissed me off the most. I was like, "You're a dick, I think you deserve to get turned over." All the stunts are about exposing hypocrisy, so it was a matter of trying to work out exactly what these editors do that is in contrast to their public declarations.
Mackenzie was slightly different though because all the other editors like to pretend that they're good, upstanding, lovely, moral people whereas what they do for work all day belies that that's untrue. However MacKenzie is an unashamed scumbag—he's quite proud of it. And so MacKenzie is the one where it wasn't really exposing hypocrisy, it was just giving him a kick.
What do you think the reactions to the pranks tell us about people in the newspaper industry?
What I wanted to show is that they believe it's one rule for them and one for everyone else and that it's OK to send out people to harass people unfairly, but if you try doing it to them then they're not very happy about it. I think if you're going to live by the sword you have to die by the sword. That counts for me as much as anyone. I know that I put myself out there, going out after them and if someone wanted to stunt me then I'd probably be deserving of it and I wouldn't be complaining. Whereas them—they don't like it up 'em.
Where do the boundaries lie between privacy, public interest, and freedom of expression?
That's a very good question, because that's what the whole film is about. There is no set boundary. The point I wanted to make is that far too often people want to be told "this is where the boundary lies," whereas in fact, every person needs to make their own decision as to what's acceptable.
Certainly in the film, people could argue that I cross the line in certain parts, that I shouldn't be invading people's privacy in the way that I do, whether they've done it to other people or not. But that's fine, as long as people are talking about it and thinking for themselves. What is acceptable? Is it acceptable to put a video of someone's asshole and balls in my film because they have written kiss and tells? I think so, but maybe you don't, maybe other people don't.
Why don't you get your own back on your old boss from the Daily Star in the film?
On my long list of people to target, he was certainly there. We did actually have a stunt planned, but with the budget we had it ended up being too difficult to do so we ended up dropping it. I'm not going to say what it was because I might still do it now. Let's just say I've got a few other things up my sleeve. I might not be finished quite yet.
So is there going to be a One Rogue Reporter sequel?
Not in this country there won't be. I'm developing a second film going after the American media. I've been in New York and Washington for the last couple of months, trying to work out how I'll go about it. It's certainly a different situation. Having made One Rogue Reporter completely off my own back, with no money, no backing, no nothing, having a production company on board you've got scope to do much bigger things.
Is the film a way for you to look back at being part of that world and atone for the things that you did?
It's not something that's foregrounded in the film, but certainly on a personal level yeah I think that was a subconscious motivation, there was a degree of trying to right a wrong. I do feel guilty about some of the things I did and this feels like a bit of atonement for that.
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