The U.S. got more from the British than a language and Victoria Beckham. We also got a wave of tabloid editors and paparazzi trained in a ruthless, hypercompetitive market — where at least one major newspaper routinely hacked celebrity voicemail.
On the heels of a California bill regulating paparazzi movement — the one that took into account that scary Kate Moss video — come several meditations and investigations on how gossip sausage is made. A New York Times Magazine investigation into widespread practices at the Murdoch-owned News Of The World shows that bum-rushing celebrities at airports isn't the only way to stay afloat in a brutal media environment. There's also accessing their mobile phones, which is absurdly simple:
Often, all it took was a standard four-digit security code, like 1111 or 4444, which many users did not bother to change after buying their mobile phones. If they did, the paper's private investigators found ways to trick phone companies into revealing personal codes. Reporters called one method of hacking "double screwing" because it required two simultaneous calls to the same number. The first would engage the phone line, forcing the second call into voice mail. A reporter then punched in the code to hear messages, often deleting them to prevent access by rival papers. A dozen former reporters said in interviews that hacking was pervasive at News of the World. "Everyone knew," one longtime reporter said. "The office cat knew."
Their targets included the royal family — which is eventually what got Scotland Yard on the trail, although The New York Times says their investigation was half-assed because they were afraid of Murdoch — but also lesser known people like soccer executives and even the 19-year-old victim of a sexual assault (apparently by a famous person):
The victim in a high-profile sexual-assault investigation seven years ago, wrote to the police in January to see if her name was in the files. The woman suspected her phone may have been hacked because details about her life appeared in News of the World and other tabloids during coverage of her ordeal. She had been convinced the police or her friends were selling the information. Two months after writing to the police, she received a letter confirming that her number had been found among Mulcaire's records.
This woman and three others have brought cases against the paper, though the process has been hampered by Scotland Yard's foot-dragging.
Though utterly heinous, the practices at The News Of The World seem to be an almost nostalgic throwback to an old world of gossip. Earlier this week, The Village Voice published a lament that gossip-collecting just isn't want it used to be, at least at newspapers in New York. Says George Rush, who walked away from his longtime Daily News gig:
"It was supposed to be about the rich, famous, and powerful...You weren't supposed to waste the time of your readers by writing about soap-opera stars, people who weren't worth the ink. That was one of the pleasures for the readers: people whose money couldn't protect them from disaster.....There's just so much that gets instantly transmitted about so many 'celebrities' "-Rush pauses to make air quotes-"we've never even regarded as celebrities," he says. "You want them to go away. If Snooki passes out drunk, so what? She doesn't have far to fall."
And his former Daily News colleague Ben Widdicombe says that by 2008, "It was all about Paris-Britney-Lindsay, and the columnists were essentially waiting for one of them to die. Preferably in as lurid and media-friendly a way possible." How far have we come? Well, Britney's been staying out of trouble.
These days, outlets like the Daily News and Page Six seem positively genteel next to the dominant, high-metabolism gossip machines of TMZ and copycat RadarOnline. (Only The National Enquirer seems to be still waving the flag for print tabloids.) Those machines require a steady fuel of minutiae and the occasional Mel Gibson-style scandal. And we all keep clicking.