I was at a conference today entitled "How to Raise Funds from the Rich" but as I've always tried to avoid writing about anything specifically work related (in order to not get fired), I'll instead flag up "Starsuckers", the new film from Chris Atkins, the BAFTA-nominated director of the documentary Taking Liberties, who this time takes on our celebrity- obsessed media.
The film could easily be called "How to Raise Funds from the Media", for it offers the following tips on how to dupe a tabloid into printing a fake story:
Ingenuity and improvisation are the keys to succeeding at this and we would very much appreciate any feedback from both successful and unsuccessful attempts, so we can update these tips. But the very basic rules are
Follow these 4 rules and you should have your fake stories running round the world in no time. Additional tips:
- Be funny. Humour is a far more valued commodity to a tabloid journalist than the truth, so the more they laugh the less they check.
- Don’t be nasty. The more unpleasant the story, the more likely the celeb is to get angry and reach for their lawyer. This is not about libelling celebrities, but about showing how celebrity journalists will print anything. If it’s funny and silly no one is going to bother suing, and the newspaper is more likely to run it.
- Have a name. This is very important to the journalists as a way of standing up a story (Clint Eastwood would have had real problems here) so make up a fake name. Silly names are also good – please let us know which ones you get away with (Neve O’Loony was our best fake source yet, just so you know the standard you have to aim for).
- Have a phone number. This is extremely important to tabloid hacks, as no-one ever lied who had an operational telephone. Buy a pay as you go sim card for a fiver – you will easily cover the cost with your first story.
Start with a kernel of truth. Do a small amount of research about which celebrity you are intending to make something up about. We found that certain paparazzi websites are updated almost real-time, (mrpaparazzi.com is great for this) so you can get a good handle on which celebrities have been where the night before. The tabloids own gossip pages are also useful for inspiration, and if it’s based on a happening that’s been printed in their own pages then – by some wonderful circular logic – they will naturally believe it to be true. If you create your own story based on real celebrity comings and goings, it is much more likely to stand up. Remember the tabloid journalists you are trying to convince are just sitting in another office looking at the same internet sites to back your story up.
Most tabloid celebrity stories are about celebs either doing or saying things. So you can go for a simple “Sarah Harding was drunk coming out of club” or “Lilly Allen said that her new album is great” but these aren’t going to get much traction as these banal titbits fly around all the time. To get something prominent you need to give it an unusual twist. So once you’ve found out that two well known celebs were in a west end club, you need to invent your own details. Maybe they had a tug of war? Maybe someone dazzled there fellow diners with a display of knee slapping, which was only topped by a page 3 model showing off her skill at playing the spoons?
Also avoid anything too fantastical – “Peaches Geldof was seen levitating over the Thames” is unlikely to be picked up by even the most gullible tabloid hack with the possible exception of the Sunday Sport. Then again we have seen some pretty insane stories appearing in recent years, so it’s worth trying something physically impossible every now and then to see if you can get away with it.
Who are you? How did you come across this story? Tabloid journalists prefer eyewitness sources, but they will also accept “my mate told me that” sources as well. Quite often people call up who happened to see something or randomly overhead a quote. Maybe you were on your sisters birthday in Café de Paris when David Walliams farted “God Save the Queen”. Maybe you’re a cab driver and you overheard Jamie Winstone saying he used to be a member of the boyscouts and still goes on camping trips in his shorts and his woggle. Make it potentially believable but keep the details vague, so they don’t have much to pull you up on.
Timing is key. Tabloids have a print cut off between 4-6 pm, so it’s good to wait until the afternoon to call in. This is because they will be sitting there with empty pages to fill and under intense pressure to produce something hot. Also if you call in an hour before they go to press it gives them no time to check your story out.
Who to call? We would always call the same story around several papers, which increases your chances of getting it run.
The Mirror 0800 289 441. Desperate for tips, and probably the easiest paper to get nonsense stories printed. That’s what 10 years of having Piers Morgan at the helm will do to a newspaper. At one point they asked our researcher to come in and work for them. Though another time we called up to check what the payment would have been for a story, they said that they wouldn’t pay anything, so be careful.
The Daily Star 0208 612 7373. Also pays well for stories. We had several successes here. Also prone to add their own fantastic details which is always good for a laugh
The Sun – 020 7782 4100. Pretty gullible, but has peculiar print cut off at 10.30 am for showbiz stories. Also pays very well, £600 for a lead story in Bizarre.
The Express - 0207 098 2982. Chronically understaffed so lots of opportunity to feed them nonsense.
The Call. It’s worth rehearsing a few times with a friend and practise thinking on your feet. The best liars do so by first convincing themselves (think Tony Blair and Iraq), so try and imagine yourself actually in the club, bar, wherever and get as many details in your head as you can. When you call stay in character and try not to laugh. It’s no good if you start the call as a Geordie and end it as a Scot (though this did happen to us and they still ran the story). They are likely to ask you:
If they ask anything that you think might rumble you it’s best not to guess. Say you can’t remember, that you were drunk, or that you need to check with your mate and then call them back. Don’t worry too much about sounding unreliable… they print stories from unreliable sources every day of the year.
- How you got to see what you saw
- A few details about you
- How much the celebrity had had to drink
- What they were wearing
The money. It’s important to note that we did not take a penny from any of the stories we fed the tabloids, as it would have undermined the integrity of what we were doing with the documentary. You on the other hand have no such restraints, so our advice is to get as much money as you can. Prices range form £50 for a couple of lines at the bottom of the page, to £600 for a lead story in the Bizarre column in The Sun. They only pay out for a story when it’s printed, and make sure you get the price agreed in the phone call, and hold them to it (some papers are notorious for reneging on deals, so make sure it’s properly agreed)
If at first you don’t succeed… keep on trying! Sometimes our calls led nowhere, other times we had several stories running at once. It’s impossible to predict what journalist is going to fall for which story, so it’s best to play the numbers and do lots of stories to lots of papers over time. Have different characters and accents and keep on calling, and remember to let us know of your successes!