In the week that the News Of The World closes amidst much media controversy, Ben Myers recalls his brief accidental career working undercover for the tabloid.
I was a young, green, keen teen with badly peroxided hair. For those reasons alone, the features writer at the News Of The World thought I would be the ideal person to send undercover into what she suspected was a child abuse ring, based just off the Mile End Road in East London.
While those of a certain age will fondly recall the Britpop summer of "Roll With It" vs. "Country House" and the sight of John Major struggling to retain control of the Tory Party, for me the sunny season of 1995 will forever be associated with hidden wires, fictional dossiers and nagging senses of doubt, hypocrisy, paranoia and loathing. And cheques. Nice cheques.
The author, fucked at a festival in 1995
It began innocently enough: I was an English Literature student looking to get a head start in the world of journalism and had a whole summer in which to do it. I wrote to every magazine and newspaper in London, where I was sleeping on a floor, offering to work for free. I got nowhere.
But then a friend of a friend who worked in the mail room at News International in Wapping got me an ‘in’ with a secretary who knew someone on the entertainment desk at News Of The World. Phone calls were made. I started on Monday. Wear a tie, they say.
The first week in the vast open-plan newsroom was an eye-opener. Everything you think you know about a tabloid paper is probably true. Men in white shirts searching for a scoop. Sub-editors chewing pens and checking facts. Lots of action, lots of coffee, lots of cigarettes. Celebrity guests dropping in. A general sense of urgency. Sitting in on editorial meetings it soon became obvious that the main business was dirt digging: who can dish what on who – and without being sued? Have you got it on tape? Do we have pictures? Was the vicar wearing stockings during the orgy?
The new editor, a 30-year-old oil slick called Piers Morgan, was widely perceived as being fast-tracked up the poll by the News Of The World’s reptilian despot, Rupert Murdoch. The previous year Morgan had been writing an entertainment column at The Sun, now he was running its Sunday equivalent. Equally as primed for success was the features editor, a young flame-haired protégée of Murdoch called Rebekah Wade, whose boyfriend Ross Kemp was famous for flexing his pectorals behind the bar of the Queen Vic.
I was assigned all the dull tasks expected of a work experience lackey and settled into a daily routine of opening and then forwarding mail to Michael Winner and Jonathan Ross, reading, laughing at and then filing the sex column letters and fetching sandwiches and cigarettes for Rebekah Wade. As a treat I was offered a bit of paid sub-editing work – turning a 90-word TV preview into a 60-word one. It took five minutes and I was paid the equivalent of my student rent for a week.
Then the following Monday I was offered something more complex. A reporter had seen an advert for a youth club in the East End “for young gay and lesbians aged 10 to 16.” Well, they reasoned. It had to be dodgy. A definite paedo place. How old are you? 19, I replied. You look younger, they said. Can you act sexually confused in a social situation? DEFINITELY! Will you go in wearing a wire? I’m not sure about that. We’ll create a fictional back-story for you – and of course we’ll pay you. How much? £100, they said. £100? Yes – per hour.
And so that night I found myself in a youth club playing the role of a sexually confused 16-year-old who had just moved into the area and was seeking some friendship and, hopefully, according to my new reporter friend, the advances of some predatory nonce. Ideally they would want to pass me and – fingers crossed – some of the younger members of the youth club into the grubby mitts of a child abuse ring.
A dictaphone was taped to my body, a wire fed under my shirt. I was sweating. A lot. None of this felt right. And all the while the reporter and covert photographer were gorging themselves on a nice curry on expenses over the road, lenses trained in our direction. After an hour I went to the toilet to flip the cassette over.
The author, left, being a tit in 1995
The people who ran the youth group were two well-meaning lesbians. Lovely ladies. They cared about the kids who hung out there – kids who were struggling with being gay, had tough backgrounds, had nowhere else to go. They took me – 19, northern, straight, an outsider – under their wings, introduced me to everyone, offered to help me get a job.
Afterwards, when I left, all the reporter wanted to know was: did anyone try it on? Did they talk about sex? If there’s a suggestion of underage gay shenanigans we might be able to get a story. Did you get anything on tape?
No, no, no, I said. They’re good people. Really nice. Well-meaning. You’ll have to go back next week, I was told. There must be something shady going on. We’ll find something. Don’t you worry. We’ll find something on them.
Like a young eager news hound out to make his name I went back again. When the night was over and the reporter and photographer had enjoyed another curry, we met in the nearby pub, the one-time haunt of the Kray twins, The Blind Beggar. Was there even a hint of underage gay sex, they asked again. Can we frame the lesbians? No, I said. And by this time I had decided that even if there was anything dodgy I was not about to tell these cretins so that they could splash it all over the pages of a newspaper that would be read by three million people come Sunday. That would help nobody but them and Murdoch’s accountants.
I realised I was on the side of the women who were giving their time to help these confused kids. I had been all along. And I was on the side of the teens themselves, most of whom had already welcomed me into their group.
In that moment I realised that tabloid journalism wasn’t like other journalism – it wasn’t real journalism. And it certainly bore no relation to writing or literature, my main interests.
To work for News Of The World you needed to suspect your scruples, put all personal ethics aside. You needed to be ruthless, hungry and get the story by any means necessary. Get the story and fuck everyone else. I knew I could never do that. It left me feeling soiled. Compromised. A total phoney.
That’s when Melody Maker called to offer me a work placement. I immediately jumped ship to write about music and spent the new few years barreling around the world, interviewing bands, schmoozing and just generally being a self-important little shit. But a self-important little shit who never once had to frame someone as a paedophile.