11 November 2002 – Hell hath no fury like a tabloid scorned. For those of us who warn constantly about the dangers of chequebook journalism for those who sell their stories, there can have been no more glaring example than the fate of Paul Burrell, the late Diana’s talkative butler. Lauded at one moment by the Mail, the Express, and the Murdoch minions as they pursued him, chequebooks waving; crusaders in search of the holy grail of scandal; he now finds himself excoriated by all. All, that is, except the Mirror, whose £300,000 bid succeeded where more generous offers failed.
Mr Burrell’s private life has now been ripped apart by the very tabloids who thought he was such a fine upstanding fellow only last week. He was warned by his agent that it would happen, and it duly did. He has experienced Fleet Street at its very worst; a breathtaking display of poisonous bile pouring from every tabloid orifice as they fight among themselves. By now he may be regretting that he took the Mirror‘s shilling, even though he foreswore even greater riches in order to keep secret the (presumably) more scurrilous parts of his knowledge. But it is much too late to give it back. The words “devil” and “long spoon” come to mind.
In hindsight, if he felt the need to speak out, Paul Burrell would have done better to give an open press conference, free gratis and for nothing, to anyone who cared to attend. But that is not the way the world works, of course. With chequebook journalism in the ascendant, anyone with a salacious story to tell now knows that knowledge of other people’s sins is a marketable commodity. Greed rules. In a very real sense, those who write the cheques are guilty of blackmail by another name. This is a pernicious habit which demeans the journalistic trade.
The savage attacks on Paul Burrell ought to be an object lesson to the next person who wants to sell an “exclusive.” Ought to be, but probably will not. Alas.
(Bulletin No 76)