Last year, producers of British documentary Starsuckers planted fake stories about celebrities into numerous tabloids: fables that told how Amy Winehouse’s hair had caught fire, for example; and that Guy Ritchie had injured himself juggling cutlery. Getting these silly, spurious stories into print garnered the film some attention in the press, but there is another side to the Starsuckers documentary that seems to have been roundly ignored by the nation’s news journalists.
Evidence of dirty tabloid tactics; Max Clifford’s boasts while caught on undercover camera; alleged celebrity sabotage of the G8 summit march in Edinburgh in July 2005. Tellingly, these revelations seem to have been swept underneath the carpet. Was it fear? Or just lack of interest? Who knows. But those stories the media neglected to cover – save for the Guardian – were of great concern to lawyers representing subjects of the film. The week before Starsuckers, by Bafta-nominated ‘Taking Liberties’ director Chris Atkins, was released it received numerous legal letters with some strong demands.
“We knew that working with Chris Atkins on Starsuckers was going to be a legal headache, but we didn’t quite expect all out war,” says the film’s lawyer, Simon Goldberg, of Simons, Muirhead and Burton. The legal threats were also, however, largely ignored by the media.
This silence can not be explained away by blaming the quality of the film. In fact, while subject to some stinging criticisms, the film has received some strong reviews from TV and film critics. And much, much weaker films than Starsuckers regularly consume hundreds of column inches in the news pages.
So why the reluctance to report that Simon Cowell has paid £250,000 a year to Max Clifford for the past seven years, or that tabloid journalists expressed interest in buying private health records? “In some ways the reaction to the film says more about the media establishment than the film itself,” argues Chris Atkins.
Case one: News International
Even though just under six months before, News of the World’s legal chief had claimed in front of the Culture, Media and Sport select committee that the Sunday paper had never threatened libel action against another publication, its in-house lawyers quickly got in touch with Starsuckers by telephone when the Guardian ran excerpts of the film on its website in mid October, ahead of the film’s cinema release.
In all, the Starsuckers team was contacted by three different lawyers on behalf of a News of the World journalist seeking to challenge her part in the film. “We were particularly surprised at demands to see the film before release, as well as demands for full copies of the unedited undercover transcripts,” says Goldberg. News International has declined to comment on the legal threats issued.
“Their behaviour is monstrously hypocritical,” argues Atkins. The News of the World editor Colin Myler and News Group Newspapers legal manager Tom Crone have gone before parliament and criticised Britain’s libel and defamation laws for restricting free speech, he says:
“Then when we turned the tables and secretly filmed one of their journalists … they threatened us with these very same libel and defamation laws. They demanded prior notification by insisting on seeing Starsuckers before release, and when we refused, their journalist engaged a ‘no win no fee’ specialist lawyer to bully us into editing out the NOTW section from the film. We were astonished that they also demanded all unedited transcripts of our secret filming, which is obviously something that the NOTW would never hand over in a million years as it is privileged journalistic material.”
News International’s threats went unreported by both print and broadcast media. Atkins did, however, make a film about their legal threats for BBC Four’s Newswipe, presented by his news satire hero, Charlie Brooker.
But it never got aired. Atkins isn’t sure whether it ever will be. At first he suspected it was down to the BBC’s legal team, but Brooker categorically denies this was the reason. “We may use it in future,” says Brooker. “The BBC legal department has been far from ‘spineless’ throughout the series. In fact they’ve been exemplary, and it would be unfair for anyone to suggest otherwise.” But Atkins doesn’t believe it will see the light of day: “I doubt it, given the spat we had, and even if they do it will be about a year after the events took place which is pretty pointless.
Atkins is frustrated that Newswipe’s decision to axe the show prevented the story being told: “They [Newswipe producers] had specifically asked us to keep it under wraps so that Newswipe could have the exclusive. I turned down other news outlets who wanted the story.” Newswipe has, he claims, given News of the World the last laugh, even if not intentionally:
“Charlie Brooker is probably the most talented person on British TV, and we’re all huge fans of his work, so we were pretty upset at being dumped. Newswipe unintentionally buried an extremely important story and unwittingly handed a victory to The News of The World.”
Case 2: Max Clifford
Then there was Max Clifford. On 23 October 2009, the day of the film’s first press screening, Starsuckers received a letter from law firm Carter-Ruck on behalf of the celebrity publicist stating: “Please may we hear from you by 11:00am confirmation sought failing which we shall advise our client to apply to the court for relief including but not limited to an injunction”.
Unfortunately for Clifford and Carter-Ruck, the time specified was an hour and a half after the film was due to begin screening to a crowd of journalists in London. Despite the wording of the letter, Clifford claims he never tried to injunct the film:
“They [Starsuckers] have said to several people I’ve tried to injunct them. I haven’t. [I] never tried to; it’s not my nature. I just wanted to make sure that I knew exactly what they were claiming, that’s all.”
The film was shown at cinemas around the country, with no more word from Carter-Ruck or its client.
Was that because they realised they were on shaky legal ground? Or simply because no-one in the media picked up on the film’s revelations about Clifford? “Despite its astonishing content Max’s involvement in the film has been completely ignored by all major news outlets,” says Atkins.
Atkins believes this because journalists are “terrified of upsetting him as they all rely on him so much for stories and as a pundit”. This, he says, “is precisely the point the film set out to prove”.
In the case of Clifford, Atkins responded to a silencing attempt by making a silly viral video, ‘Call Max’. Within a few days, “it went off the chart and is nearly at 10,000 hits,” Atkins says. “I doubt he’ll try and shut as down again, as when he tried to injunct us last time Carter Ruck made a complete pig’s ear of it.”
Case three: Bob Geldof
Most recently, legal concerns arrived personally from Bob Geldof over the film’s allegations about the ill-effect of Live 8 and Band Aid. It’s a subject the singer and activist feels sensitive about following a damning BBC World Service report in March 2010.
Geldof only communicated his annoyance with the film less than a week before it was due to air on More 4. “On the working day before broadcast I got 58 pages of correspondence from Bob Geldof, demanding I re-edit the film,” says Atkins.
Starsuckers’ reaction? To make the letter available to the Guardian, arguing it was the public interest. As well as a page three news story in print and online, the Guardian ran an online comment piece by one of the film’s commentators, executive director of War on Want, John Hilary, countering Geldof’s new argument.
In the response statement issued by Geldof for use in the film, he states: “Live Aid did no harm whatsoever. None. Any suggestions otherwise will result in court action and a demand of proof”. He asked Atkins to take into account the information in the correspondence and re-edit his film accordingly before broadcast. Despite Geldof’s last minute attack, the film aired on More 4 with the singer’s counter claims included in a lengthy right to reply before the final credits.
Again, another story neglected. At the time of writing, Google News features gossip stories about Geldof’s daughter Peaches – with no national media (Guardian excepted) coverage of the Starsuckers allegations or Geldof retorts.
In the past year, we have seen just how effectively the media can be silenced, whether its journalists acknowledge it or not. The UK’s most influential news media has deliberately ignored much of the News of the World phone hacking investigation by Guardian journalist Nick Davies, and now some of the most important revelations made by the Starsuckers documentary.
Staunchly conservative Daily Mail columnist Peter Oborne argued in the Observer last weekend that Fleet Street “operates under a system of omerta so strict that it would secure a nod of approbation from the heads of the big New York crime families”. This, Oborne argues, explains why Davies’ investigation has gained “no traction” in the mainstream press, with the exception of the Guardian.
His argument was proved the very next day: on Monday 5 April 2010 Davies made more startling revelations about Scotland Yard’s handling of phone hacking evidence in 2006. His media contemporaries, normally so keen to follow the lead of their rivals, have as yet neglected to follow up the story.
There wasn’t a total blackout on Starsuckers, it has received newspaper reviews, extensive Guardian news coverage and some mention in the diaries. But the mainstream news outlets didn’t pick up on the film’s most important allegations and the subsequent legal battles, narrative accounts of which are available on Atkins’ blog.
Rather than backing down or conceding to lawyers’ demands, Starsuckers has consistently held its ground, and so far it seems to have worked in the face of three sets of legal threats. “The sequel to Starsuckers will take place in the High Courts in a few months time. Atkins vs cliffordNOTWgeldof & others,” joked Atkins on Twitter.
It’s a joke for the time being. But if the joke becomes a reality, it might just provide the basis for a great new film, one which the UK’s newspapers and broadcasters may, or may not, choose to report.
Starsuckers, with additional previously unseen footage, was released on DVD on 12 April 2010. A trailer can be viewed at: http://tinyurl.com/starsuckerstrailer.
This post originally appeared on Journalism.co.uk and is reproduced with permission and thanks. Judith Townend is a senior reporter at Journalism.co.uk. The post also appeared on the Index on Censorship website.