The Fleet Street Fox, aka Susie Boniface, opens up about life as a tabloid journalist
Here’s an early contender for understatement of the year: journalists aren’t exactly flavour of the month right now. Though Fleet Street has rarely been held at the heart of public affection, its reputation has taken a battering in the wake of the phone hacking scandal; its stock falling to the point where tabloid hacks roughly occupy a space below traffic wardens, on a par with politicians, and hovering dangerously above ‘70s television presenters at the wrong end of the professional popularity scale.
Phone hacking – and the resultant Leveson Inquiry, more of which later – has undoubtedly cast a long shadow over the industry, but journalism in 2013 is also suffering from an epistemic crisis. Newspaper circulation has plummeted since the turn of the century, as readers are increasingly content with consuming their news, views, gossip and analysis free of charge, online.
Meanwhile, traditional media outlets have seen budgets slashed and staff cut, sending an already competitive industry into overdrive. Today, the scoops matter more than ever. Oh, to be a fly on the wall in a frenetic tabloid newsroom.
Step forward Fleet Street Fox, the (until recently) anonymous blogger lifting the lid on her beloved industry. What began three years ago as, in her words, “a way to tell the truth about my trade”, became one of the internet’s must-read blogs, an unprecedented insight into the world of a hack who has covered everything from the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami to some of the most scandalous kiss-and-tells in recent memory. ‘Foxy’, as she prefers to be known, has gained a 57,000-strong army of Twitter followers and secured a book deal in the process.
Foxy has recently stepped out from behind her vulpine guise in order to promote The Diaries of a Fleet Street Fox, revealing herself as the Sunday Mirror’s Susie Boniface. The book charts a traumatic period for Foxy, cataloguing the trials and tribulations of an acrimonious divorce whilst shining a light on the soap opera of life as a tabloid hack. Tellingly, it is dedicated to ‘the feral beasts of Fleet Street’ – the subtext being that whilst you don’t have to be a hard-nosed, thick-skinned, ruthless bastard to succeed on Fleet Street, it certainly helps.
“Journalism is a balance between two parts of your brain,” Foxy tells me, obligatory glass of wine in hand. “One is the normal human being that says, I want to go home and see my Mum, I want to have my life and all the rest of it. And the other half of the brain is the journalist.
Like any successful journalist, it is Foxy’s dogged determination to uncover a story that sets her apart from those who are merely happy to read them. “I’ve been a newspaper reporter for 18 years. I’ve been shot at, I’ve had people coming at me with lumps of wood with nails in the end, I’ve been abused, I’ve been threatened… I spent my third wedding anniversary in a car outside a politician’s house, covered in snot, trying to gather the evidence for his affair,” she recalls.
The enduring popularity of tabloid kiss-and-tells is a testament to the British public’s addiction to schadenfreude – who doesn’t enjoying knocking celebrities of their lofty perch? – and Foxy has certainly written her share. Indeed, she recalls the most harrowing moment of her career as, “standing in a hotel corridor listening to a celebrity achieve orgasm. I didn’t feel remotely proud of that, I felt quite appalled at myself. I didn’t think it was a bad thing to do, because the celebrity in question was lying about so much stuff, and earning money from lying, and fooling the public by lying. I would quite happily argue that it’s a reasonable story to do, but it was an unpleasant story to do.”
Given the brazen attitude of certain public figures towards sex scandals, Foxy presumably revels in bringing people down? “If they deserve it, it’s a fucking lovely feeling,” she says unequivocally. It is an understandable sentiment, and perhaps unsurprising given that her own divorce was brought about by her husband’s affair, but I suggest that it must be unpleasant for the wife of a philandering footballer to have her personal agony sensationally splashed across the front pages.
“My opinion has changed over time,” she explains. “I would originally have said that my sympathy would always be with the cheated party, but writing the book and the passage of time has taught me that I had my own things that I did not necessarily do for the best in my marriage. It doesn’t encourage an affair, it doesn’t make it okay, but when a marriage breaks down the affair is the least of the issues. It’s the pile of bricks that breaks the camel’s back, but up until that point there’s a million straws on it.”
Unfortunately for a bloodthirsty British public, the biggest scandals are often the ones which never see the light of day. Every inch the gossipy tabloid hack, Foxy regales me with a series of outrageous stories which didn’t make it to print.
“You end up with more stories than you could ever possibly publish, but it’s a normal part of being a journalist,” she says. “Even if a story is true you’ll more than likely be sued into oblivion by a rich man, because that’s the way defamation laws work in this country. They’re from the 12th Century, designed to protect the Lords and not the peasants.”
Whether or not they would admit it, this is the brand of journalism which Hacked Off, the high-profile lobby group who have been campaigning for more stringent media regulation, has been determined to keep in check. Headed by Hugh Grant, Hacked Off played an instrumental role in talks between the major political parties following Leveson, a fact which has infuriated many in the media.
“I would love to know the last time a lobby group got to sit in a room while someone decided on a law. The people in Hacked Off are not journalists; Hugh Grant doesn’t have a mandate and none of the parties have a mandate for press regulation. None of them have asked ordinary journalists what they think. Hacked Off haven’t come to ordinary journalists and said, what would you like us to do? They’ve consulted their own arseholes… and that’s why you get a dog turd of a law that doesn’t mean anything.”
She continues: “If they came and asked ordinary journalists they wouldn’t hear us say, oh great, let’s all phone hack to death. They’d say, you know what, we don’t like phone hackers either, we don’t like people who destroy our trade and ruin our reputations, but we would like a regulator that can give £1 million fines and could direct the placement of corrections.”
Leveson has been a particular bone of contention within journalism. According to Foxy, the conveyor belt of celebrities who pitched up to attack the press from all angles reduced the inquiry to “a blood-letting. It was a shoeing. It was just, let’s fucking lay in. It was only interested in looking at the worst culture, ethics and practice of the press. It was our turn and, as much as it was deserved, there were people giving evidence who were not questioned very thoroughly on their evidence. Some of the evidence was so old it should have been given in Latin.”
The demise of the News of the World was not enough for Hacked Off, who have continued to campaign for tighter press regulation in the wake of Leveson. On a personal level, Foxy was “very sad” about the demise of “the best paper I never worked for”.
“The News of the World shut down because [News International] realised that things were going to hurt them. The loss of advertising was going to hurt the BskyB share price and the News International share price – that’s why it shut down.”
Nonetheless, News International continues to court controversy. The Sun was recently castigated for a controversial front page reporting the death of South African model Reeva Steenkamp, whilst the No More Page 3 campaign is increasingly gaining traction. Foxy is non-plussed.
“I don’t give a toss [about Page 3]. I think the wonderful thing about feminism, which people like Harriet Harman have forgotten, is that feminism gives women a choice, and if they want to go on Page 3, you can argue with them about their choice in life and you can encourage them to be rocket scientists, but if they choose to do it, they can. That’s the whole point.”
With several court cases relating to phone hacking on the horizon, it appears that there are more dark days ahead for News International, and for journalism in general. Will they serve to once again sully the good name of journalism?
“Well, people who are fairly innocent will get done. Guaranteed. I think the generals will probably get away with things they shouldn’t get away with, and I think the foot soldiers will get done for stuff they shouldn’t get done for. Because that’s the way the world works,” Foxy laments.
One can only hope that a proud, important and often brilliant industry will live to fight another day.
The Diaries of a Fleet Street Fox is out now in paperback.