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February 20, 2023

The myth of UK tabloid newspapers and ‘kompromat’

Have tabloid newspapers ever kept secret files for future blackmail purposes?

By John Sturgis

A novel published by Picador this spring, Becky by Sarah May, touches on a theme which often crops up in discussions of tabloid misbehaviour: ‘kompromat’.

The book is set in the world of the tabloids of the 1990s and 2000s, being a thinly-veiled retelling of the Rebekah Brooks story. 

The author sticks pretty closely to the facts of her subject’s real career. Admittedly she conflates The Sun and News of the World into a single red-top entity, and there are small details that may jar with anyone who worked for either: the opening bid for a paid interview at one point is £10 million; someone offering a small story about a dog is asked for 800 words of copy; editors start brawling in conference. 

But there’s one particular aspect that is completely wrong.

The Rebekah character holds a big summer party for the great and the good, including the Prime Minister and his wife. “I have files on almost everyone here,” May’s heroine reveals, before giving the illustrative example of a popstar who is only at the party because Becky has a “file” detailing his predilection for S&M sex in hotels with prostitutes – which he fears she will publish if he doesn’t attend. 

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May has evidently bought into the widespread idea that the tabloids had or have so-called ‘kompromat’. 

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Compromising kompromat in UK journalism

The term comes from a practice used by the KGB and others. It was depicted in ITV’s recent Stonehouse as the means the Czech secret service first applied to ‘turn’ the soon-to-disappear married Labour MP and make him work for them: photographing him in flagrante with a seductive secret agent of theirs. It was, it seems, widely used in this way in cold war spy circles. 

But the whole idea of kompromat in the UK media is a myth. It just didn’t happen. 

Which is not to say that the tabloids wouldn’t have liked to do this. I’m almost certain they would have. But there were practical rather than ethical reasons why, even at the mid-1990s zenith of their influence and wealth, they didn’t. 

Primarily, they simply didn’t have anything like the resources necessary to work up big stories about celebrities or politicians and sleaze only to deliberately not publish them. They were too desperate for such stories to sit on them strategically. No matter how big a hit a red top had pulled off on any given day, there was always the next day: an empty newslist that desperately needed filling. 

Another practical reason why kompromat didn’t happen is that 99% of red-top exclusives originated in tips: from contacts, partly, but mostly from ring-ins – as those calls from members of the public to the news desk were called. “Got a story? We pay cash?” as the ‘come-ons’ to induce such calls made explicit. These kinds of leads and the information they gave were necessarily ad hoc, their subjects offered up indiscriminately.

The targeting of individuals didn’t happen because it didn’t work: without any tip as a starting point, reporters could waste weeks of time getting nowhere that way. You might want a story about the singer of a big band but you’d get offered one about the drummer. So it was the drummer you would investigate.

Safe from prying eyes

Central to the myth of kompromat, its physical embodiment, was The Sun safe. This actually did exist and sat proudly in the middle of the newsroom with masthead branding, looking suitably robust.

As a young hack on other titles, I’d believed the idea that it was packed with explosive secrets about all manner of public figures. But when I joined The Sun I was disappointed to find that it was dusty – and almost completely empty.

All there was inside were a handful of old VHS cassettes, one showing XXXX having sexual relations with an Alsatian, the others a variety of other lower-end celebrities in acts of more conventional sexual activity. The former never led to a published story – not because of its value as blackmail material but because no one had ever worked out a way of telling this dark tale in a manner suitable for ‘a family newspaper’.

The others had been the evidential basis of stories that had already appeared and were kept as some kind of prurient souvenir, this being in the days before holding people’s data – or, as here, other particulars – became legally problematic in itself. 

And that was it. There were no cabinet ministers compromised, no household names’ dark secrets withheld at an editor’s discretion so they would attend parties, nothing of the kind at all.

So why has the kompromat idea taken hold to the extent that a novelist would write it into her story?

Well – see my pre-Sun experience – the tabloids wanted to big themselves up: no one lapped up aggrandising content of the “It was The Sun Wot Won It” variety more than the tabloids themselves. They loved to push the idea that they had more power than they really did.

Then there were events during the Elveden cases where it suited journalists – never shy about exaggerating at the best of times – who were coming under intense scrutiny to fortify their legal defences by suggesting that they only published material which was firmly in the public interest –  and the rest went in the safe which by implication became a treasure of secrets. 

And finally, there was that phenomenon where one tabloid was seen to have apparently oven-ready material to follow another’s exclusive. So when The Sunday Mirror ran an expose of some public figure and then Monday’s The Sun was able to follow more material on the same person, this was taken as evidence of kompromat. In fact, it was invariably simply because a story in The Sun had previously been pulled by nervous lawyers who then became emboldened once Trinity Mirror, as it was then, went first. 

All of these ingredients coalesced to create the idea of kompromat – which took hold, particularly among ‘hacked-off’ types. One particularly fanciful article from this wing claimed The Sun’s safe was known as “the Black Museum” – I’ve certainly never heard of anyone calling it that – and described it “the Death Star of British journalism”.

It even suggested it contained compromising material on the Royal family, citing the pre-war footage of the young Queen Elizabeth jokingly performing a Nazi salute – which gave rise to a 2015 splash – as having previously been “held in The Sun safe for years”. It hadn’t – it came from a ring-in just a fortnight before the story was published.

Take the case of Max Mosley. Here you have an immensely rich and powerful man who you have bang to rights for an orgy if not, ultimately, for a Nazi-themed orgy. But very few of your readers have heard of him. Would there ever be a better candidate for kompromat? “Hi Max, we’re hoping you can get a couple of big name F1 drivers and some other celebrities to come along to our awards as per our little arrangement” and so on. Or do you choose a path which sees you gain no long term advantage and, in fact, incurring an enemy in perpetuity? The NoW chose the latter option because the former never occurred to them. It wasn’t something they did. 

A softer touch

What did exist instead of kompromat – what proliferated in fact – was what were called ‘soft landings’. 

These worked thus: once a compromising story about a high-profile person was stood up and ready to publish, a call would go to their agent or representative for comment. And, at this point, it was and, I believe, remains quite common for a bit of horse trading to go on.

An allegation might be watered down in exchange for an interview about it. This was the classic soft landing outcome. The celebrity would be less bruised, the paper would retain an ostensible rapport with the star going forward. But that was it. 

Ultimately, the reason people like Tony Blair and David Cameron went to Rebekah Brooks’ parties was that they wanted her to be nice about them, not because she had blackmail files. 

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Select and enter your email address Weekly insight into the big strategic issues affecting the future of the news industry. Essential reading for media leaders every Thursday. Your morning brew of news about the world of news from Press Gazette and elsewhere in the media. Sent at around 10am UK time. Our weekly does of strategic insight about the future of news media aimed at US readers. A fortnightly update from the front-line of news and advertising. Aimed at marketers and those involved in the advertising industry.
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