Insiders: Lies, bullying marked Murdoch tabloids

Michael Taggart, former journalist at News International news paper, The Sun next to a news stand in London, July 15, 2011. AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth

LONDON - With their former boss under arrest, tabloid reporters are beginning to reveal secrets of what it was like to work in Rebekah Brooks' newsrooms.

Disguises, bullying, lies dropped into copy — all were part of the pressure-cooker atmosphere that prevailed, according to former journalists who spoke to The Associated Press.

Michael Taggart, who worked at The Sun in 2003, said the paper under Brooks was marked by "ruthlessness and misogyny."

"The reporters who were prepared to subject themselves and others to the most ridicule were the ones earmarked for success," he said.

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Insiders say the whatever-it-takes mantra was common across the tabloid world. But the pressure at News International — publisher of the Sun and the News of the World, the now defunct paper at the center of the phone hacking scandal — was particularly intense.

Taggart described routinely participating in overnight stakeouts while at the Sun, something he said was rare at other papers he had worked for.

He said other tabloids were just as hungry for scandal and celebrity, but they tended to rely on "great contacts, rather than covert operations."

At Rupert Murdoch's tabloids, refusing to play ball meant being pushed to the sidelines. One reporter who said he went through that was Charles Begley, News of the World's Harry Potter correspondent in 2001 when Brooks was its editor.

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The then 29-year-old reporter said he wore a Harry Potter costume to work and officially changed his name to that of the fictional boy wizard, all part of the paper's attempt to tap into the Pottermania sweeping both sides of the Atlantic.

On Sept. 11, hours after the fall of the Twin Towers, Begley was stunned to be chewed out by News of the World management for not wearing his costume. He said he was then ordered to attend the next news meeting in full Potter regalia.

Shaken by the demand, Begley never showed up, and soon afterward parted ways with the paper.

Brooks spokesman David Wilson said the former editor was "not going to answer specific allegations like this at this time," but described many of the stories being circulated as ridiculous.

Another reporter who spent seven years with the News of The World said the humiliation described by Begley was routine.

"It was very hierarchical," the former reporter said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he still works in the media industry. "If your immediate boss told you to drive to Norfolk and stand in a field ... that's what you were expected to do."

Attitudes toward women — never thought of as particularly enlightened at The Sun, a paper still famous for its topless page 3 models — did not improve under Brooks, Taggart said.

"We were regularly encouraged to refer to women with misogynistic names like 'tarts,' 'slappers' or 'hookers' in our copy if there was conceivably any question mark over their sexual proclivities," he said.

"We were expected to childishly objectify women. So blonde-haired women were described as 'beauties' and generously chested women 'looked swell', whether they'd wanted the attention or not."

Faking facts was also part of tabloid life under Brooks, reporters said.

A third News of The World reporter, who spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity because he too is still working in the media industry, said some editors at the News of the World deliberately inserted bogus details to sensationalize copy.

The reporter, who worked at the tabloid for seven years, said protesting was not an option. He said the paper "was no place to question what you were being asked to do, the answer was always the same mantra: Do what you have to do to get a result."

"Anyone mentioning ethics or refusing to be cooperative with dubious practices would have been effectively exiled by the news desk and labeled as 'flaky.'"

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