In the aftermath of the phone-hacking scandal that shook British journalism, tabloid editors accused of systematically hacking the phones of newsmakers, used the 'one rogue reporter' defence. Rich Peppiatt, a former tabloid journalist, has entitled his film One Rogue Reporter and in it he uses the tricks of the trade against the tabloids themselves. The Listening Post's Richard Gizbert sits down with Peppiatt to discuss yellow journalism in the UK.
Richard Gizbert: Rich Peppiat, thanks for joining us here at The Listening Post today. After you made some public comments about the relationship between the press and politics in Britain, one of Rupert Murdoch’s key editors, The Sun Newspaper, described your words as a grotesque caricature of the newspaper world. And I’m wondering, did a light go off in your head? And did you think, grotesque caricature of the newspaper world, sounds like the working title for a film?
Rich Peppiat: It's a pretty good turn of phrase, especially for a tabloid editor. He’s obviously done some headlines in his time. No. I think for me, you know, I, I like to take the philosophy, as long as the right people are clapping and the right people are booing, then everything is right in the world and, you know, if a, if a Murdoch lieutenant is booing me, I consider that somewhat of a victory.
Gizbert: But grotesque caricature is kind of what you did with the film, isn’t it?
Peppiat: You know, it’s a polemic. The film that I’ve made, is supposed to be a polemic. It’s very one-sided, but I make no bones about that. It’s my film, it’s my perspective, it’s authored by me and it’s got a lot of people in it; Steve Coogan, Hugh Grant, people like that who, who voiced an opinion that I share. But that’s the same way the tabloids just voice their own opinions and, and their columnists, and their writers only give one side of the story that suits their agenda, my film sets out to voice my own opinion and my own agenda. So it’s unashamedly that.
Gizbert: You could’ve played it straight though. You could’ve said all the serious things that you had the voices in the film, what I would call the usual suspects of phone hacking, tabloid story, the Hugh Grants, the Steve Coogans, the Greenslades from the Guardian. You could’ve played it straight but when you use those tabloid devices, it seems to me that implicit in that is almost a marketing decision that you make as the filmmaker. There’ s a better chance that more people will watch this film if I use the…the kinds of devices that this film is meant to judge harshly. So, philosophically, morally and without dancing too long on the head of that pin, aren’t you in a way making a point that defeats itself?
Peppiat: But we’re making a comedy. No. The film first and foremost is a comedy. The serious point is always second to the laugh. Now, that may, to some people, be not the right way to approach a film that’s dealing with such serious topics but to me, to the filmmakers involved in this, we made a decision that we wanted to engage people outside of the media bubble who aren’t interested in that academic, dry approach.
It’s the sort of journalism that I wanna do that’s independent journalism, going after the power that perhaps newspapers aren’t prepared to go after, which is often themselves. If you’re gonna judge other people, if you’re going to hold yourself up as a moral arbiter, as a lot of newspapers do, then what are your morals? How are you living your life? And can you stand up to sort of scrutiny that you put on others.
And this is what the film is about. It’s about putting these people who make these high declarations about how they believe members of the public should live their lives, how do you live your life? Do you like people knocking on you door? Do you like people taking pictures of you in public places? These are the questions we’re raising, and the answer is, no. They believe it’s one rule for them and one rule for everyone else. And if there’s one thing that people can take away from the film, I think that that’s probably the most important thing.
Gizbert: They targeted all kinds of people and they still do; the rich, the famous, celebrities, they like to target women who are in the public eye but you also say in the film that the tabloids need someone to blame, and they like to blame Muslims. That was something relatively new, wasn’t it? I mean, they were never big on immigrants but post-9/11 it became a big part of their story.
Peppiat: Yeah. I mean, I think Muslims became the cartoon caricature. I think that the way tabloid narrative works, that there’s always a goodie, there’s always a badie. There’s always black and white, there’s no grey area. Someone is always to blame, and Muslims became the easy target for that…
Gizbert: Is that just an easier story to sell?
Peppiat Yeah. It is an easier story to sell. And you know why? Because these people are people who don’t have a voice in the same way. They’re the powerless. Newspapers often choose to kick downwards rather than punch upwards because it’s easier to do that. It’s an easier narrative to sell, it’s less risky, and to me, that was what got me down is that I felt that the job that I was doing was about kicking downwards, and what One Rogue Reporter is about, it is about punching upwards and it’s about going after these newspaper editors who are powerful, and saying, right, you’re not above scrutiny yourselves.
Gizbert: I interviewed Nick Davies from The Guardian, who broke a lot of the phone hacking story, and one of the things he said is that really nothing’s changed. If you look at the cast of characters still editing these papers, the Murdoch still running news corporation, the Leveson enquiry calling for statutory regulation that’s not happening, this industry continues to police itself. Your film has come out presumably because you wanna change things, but the bigger picture is, not much has changed and one comes away with a feeling of, I suppose if you’re a journalist who reports on this kind of thing, of futility.
Peppiat: Oh, I think futility’s probably too strong a word. I think that it’s not easy to take down a whole pillar of British society, a very, very powerful pillar that has tentacles going through politics and through business. There is, you know, a lot of, billions and billions of pounds of money at stake when you’re talking about the future of journalism. And for somehow a few campaigners and journalists who decide to take on the particular issue overnight are somehow gonna change everything, that’s not gonna happen. I don’t think there’s any expectation of that. However. I think if you look at it from the other perspective, what campaigning has done has forced the Leveson enquiry itself. I mean, when was the last time you had the editors of these papers, people like Rupert Murdoch, forced, compelled, to go in front of an enquiry and answer questions?
Gizbert: Okay, so there’s some theatre that comes from that and some television moments that are seared into the memory banks but Leveson wanted a new set of rules. Parliamentarians said they wanted a new set of rules. The newspapers said, we don’t, and at the end of the day, we don’t have those rules. It’s pretty clear cut. That, in boxing terms would be, if not a knockout, an unanimous decision.
Peppiat: I like to think at the moment, those who want change are on the ropes but there’s no white towel that is going into the ring. There is…There is still a few rounds and yes, we need a knock out but we’re gonna come out swinging.
Gizbert: You’re gonna try to make a similar film in the US. What do you think needs to be said about the media landscape over there?
Peppiat: Well it’s a completely different ecosystem. From being out in the US and researching, it is, I suppose, the equivalent of British tabloids are channels like Fox News. There is an equivalence between those two… Print journalism takes itself very seriously, and I think that one thing that’s quite interesting is you have sort of almost a distraction of channels, like Fox News that wear their heart on the sleeve, and you’re very clear where their bias lies, where perhaps the more insidious sort of form of, you could even call propaganda, comes from those who pretend there is balance, when in fact there is none. What America would consider left-wing I think that here in the UK, we’d probably still consider right-wing, and I find that’s quite an interesting thing is that the narrative has been pushed so far to one side that whilst people think they’re debating between left and right-wing opinions, what they’re really debating about it rightwing opinions and far right opinions, and I think that the media has obviously got a lot of to do with that narrative and I’d like to go to America and explore that.
Gizbert: Well good luck with that project and Rich Peppiat, thanks for talking to us, The Listening Post, today.
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Source: Al Jazeera