The sewers of London’s tabloid newspapers are explored in a documentary film called Starsuckers, which will have its premier at the Times/British Film Institute London Film Festival later this month.

Sneak previews have been given to film critics but, perhaps predictably, only the liberal-minded Guardian has given it coverage. The silence of the tabloids has been deafening.

Filmmaker Chris Atkins came up with a bait-the-mousetrap formula to catch the rodents of the Street of Shame. He telephoned newspapers to offer them “exclusives” on celebrities and public figures who had undergone cosmetic surgery. How much would they pay?

In three cases — Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World, the Sunday Mirror and The People — meetings were filmed and tape-recorded at which detailed negotiations took place. A fourth paper, the Sunday Express, rejected the bait saying the purchase of private and confidential medical records breached the official code of ethics.

The Sunday Mirror reporter offered to pay £3000 (about $6000) for every story published and asked the go-between to “get a document on everything” kept at the surgery (i.e. private medical records).

The News of the Screws reporter also needed some documentary proof to satisfy her editor and the lawyers but she volunteered that the paper could pay up to £80,000  for a celebrity exclusive that ran for several weeks.

The People reporter said she expected her paper would want “all the nitty-gritty we could get” and she dismissed the hazard of facing disciplinary charges before the Press Complaints Commission. All it means, she said, “is a little apology somewhere in the paper and you get a slap on the wrists, you get recorded on the PCC, but there is no money (fine)”.

What aroused the interest of the three tabloids was Atkins’ offer of inside information from the clinic on famous clients, who included actors Hugh Grant, Ricky Gervais, Rhys Ifans and Gemma Arterton, none of whom have been under the cosmetician’s knife.

The sting was filmed at a London hotel on March 26 this year, with Atkins wearing a hidden microphone and filming the interviews with a pinhole camera fixed inside a woman’s sports bra which he was wearing.

His co-producers, Christina Slater and Felicity Leabeater, sat at tables nearby filming with cameras hidden in their handbags.

The three previously worked together on Taking Liberties, a highly acclaimed documentary on the undermining of civil liberties under Tory Blair’s administration. The filmmakers are negotiating to distribute the film in independent cinema chains throughout Britain.

It will be interesting to see whether the various fearless Australian film festivals decide to include Starsuckers on their invitation list now that they’ve all air-brushed Roman Polanski from the history of contemporary cinema.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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