Scandalous! The Tabloid that Changed America

BBC 4 ****

The Great British Sewing Bee

BBC1 ***

WELL of course he was Scottish. If you were looking for an archetypal hard-bitten tabloid hack who embodied the highs and lows of the trade, then Iain Calder was your man.

The former Daily Record reporter was something of a star in Scandalous! The Tabloid that Changed America, a look at the rise and plummet of the National Enquirer. Cynical, sharp, bursting with stories – had you requested him from central casting you would have sent him back for being too much of a cliche.

But that was the Enquirer, according to this superb Storyville documentary: always too much for its own good.

Mark Landsman’s 100-minute film swung between two attitudes to the paper and what it had brought to journalism.

The first, typified by Carl Bernstein, was censorious. The Enquirer should be looked at in the realm of popular culture rather than journalism, sniffed the Watergate warrior by way of an introduction.

But then the story of its origins and early operations began and the film was off to the races, half awed by the tale and more than a little amused.

Bought in the 1950s with mob money (allegedly), the title was owned outright by Generoso Pope Junior, the son of an Italian newspaperman. Legend has it that “Gene” was driving along a highway when he saw people rubbernecking an accident. The Enquirer had found the first of its specialisms: gore porn. Circulation went up to one million but Pope wanted 20 million. To do that the paper had to go where readers went, into the supermarkets. Out went the gore and in came celebrity news, gossip, dogs, medical oddities, psychics, UFOs and general wackadoodle doo. Stories were to be “exploded”, sensationalised, and for that Pope needed the best, some might say worst, in the business: Fleet and McFleet Street’s finest.

Calder led the exodus. By age 25 he had worked on the Falkirk Sentinel, the Stirling Journal, Falkirk Mail, and the Daily Record (or the “Glasgow Record” as one talking head called it). Unable to find the skills and attitude he wanted among the American media, Calder recruited from home. It was a second colonisation of America, and the locals reacted about as well as they did the last time the Brits came.

The main change ushered in by the Enquirer was that it paid for information. From this, the film argued, the rot set in. I’m not sure American journalism was always that holier than thou hitherto, but the Enquirer certainly encouraged others to follow its methods and madness. Why? Because it was phenomenally successful. The edition with a photo of Elvis in his coffin sold seven million.

Some scandals were filed away, as when a female reporter found out about Bill Cosby’s many infidelities. Calder spiked the story to get softer interviews from the star. “I was making trades that would make our readers happier,” said Calder today.

For a time, where the Enquirer led the mainstream media followed, particularly on OJ Simpson.

But when it got it wrong it got it dreadfully wrong, as when the paper ran a picture of Diana (“Di goes sex mad”) the day before the Princess died in Paris. From there it was a quick slide into further infamy. And then The Donald showed up. The paper, under new ownership, began to “catch and kill” stories, a lot of them unfavourable to candidate Trump as he became. The cover up, says Bernstein, was the “ultimate corruption”.

Terrific use of archive, a dream cast of talking heads, and a solid, clear narrative made Scandalous this week’s must see documentary.

The Enquirer would not touch The Great British Sewing Bee with a metre stick. The reality show, which reached its final last night, has been far too nice to attract tabloid attention. Why, these contestants even helped each other out if there was a problem.

While it was short on anything approaching real drama, the GBSB had enough going for it in genial host Joe Lycett, a worthy winner in 1940s enthusiast Dr Clare, and judges, Esme Young and Patrick Grant, who knew their stuff. I particularly enjoyed Young reminiscing about sitting on a window ledge with Bowie watching the Notting Hill carnival go by. Rock on, Sewing Bee.