Adam Curtis looks back at when British tabloids took on an underlying nastiness, and a willingness to traffic in human misery:
The News of the World was in trouble — it’s circulation was falling. Part of the problem was television, but also its tradition of titillating court reports — randy vicars caught with their trousers down — was feeling tired and out of date. So early in 1960 Sir William Emsley Carr, the alcoholic proprietor of the News of the World appointed a new editor called Stafford Somerfield.
On his first day as editor, Somerfield called his staff together and — as he described it — “pushed the boat out”.
“What the hell are we going to do about the circulation? It’s going down the drain. We want a series of articles that will make their hair curl.”
In a brilliant book about the British Press, the writer Roy Greenslade describes what Somerfield introduced — “two new forms of provocative content: kiss-and-tell memoirs and saucy investigations”
And right away he found the perfect combination of these in Diana Dors.
Somerfield persuaded her to tell the intimate secrets of her life in a series of articles for the News of the World. He had been fascinated by the Yeardye–Hamilton guns-and-sex drama and was convinced there was far more to be mined from her life. To get the story he paid Diana Dors £35,000 which was an extraordinary amount for that time.
But he got what he wanted. He sat Dors down with a journalist who recorded everything — and then, as Dors later plaintively complained, took “all the mucky bits” and wrote the story of a scandalous, violent and seedy life.
In the articles Dors described how Hamilton and her had sex parties, how Hamilton used the two way mirror to watch couples having sex — taped them and then played the tape back to the entire household over breakfast the next day. She also described the violence in their marriage, and Hamilton’s financial scams.
It was a complete humiliation for Diana Dors, and it shocked the nation. The Archbishop of Canterbury described her as “a wanton hussey”. And Tommy Yeardye then joined in — offering other newspapers his stories too.
It worked brilliantly though — the circulation of the News of the World soared. But Greenslade argues that by bringing this provocative new content into journalism, Somerfield had also introduced a new “nastiness” into the popular press.
Journalists have always been cynical and “hard-boiled” in their view of the world — but Greenslade says that underneath the froth of silly headlines there was now in the News of the World, “an underlying nastiness, and a willingness to traffic in human misery”
And he wasn’t the only one to think this. In 1969 Rupert Murdoch bought the News of the World. By now Stafford Somerfield had made the paper an enormous success and Murdoch kept him on. But a year later he sacked him. Murdoch later explained why:
“I sacked the best editor of the News of the World. He was too nasty even for me.”