What do Amy Winehouse's flaming beehive and Guy Ritchie's self-inflicted black eye have in common?
Both stories appeared in the pages of Britain's tabloid press. Neither is true.
The two incidents were fake showbiz news tips phoned into newspapers by the makers of the new documentary "Starsuckers," to see whether they would be used without fact-checking. The fact that they were forms part of the movie's argument that the culture of celebrity has undermined journalistic standards and warped society's values.
"I didn't realize quite how much of our news is public relations, or lies, or on the basis of criminal acts," said the film's 33-year-old director, Chris Atkins.
"Starsuckers," which premieres Wednesday at the London Film Festival, takes aim at Britain's fiercely competitive tabloid press, but its real target is much broader. Atkins believes that society's obsession with fame — gaining it and being near it — has distorted everything from the way news is reported to our children's aspirations.
‘Powerfully attracted to fame’
The film opens with the statement that "everybody is naturally and powerfully attracted to fame," and tries to show how big companies in entertainment, media and PR use that desire to create a world full of insatiable consumers.
Through a series of stunts reminiscent of Michael Moore's movie polemics, Atkins aims to show how dignity, truth and even the law go out the window in the pursuit of celebrity.
Atkins is particularly scornful of reality television — the way such shows distort reality and stretch the limits of what people will do to be on TV.
The film introduces viewers to a Nevada boy named Ryan, who wants urgently to be famous — at five years old, he is already a veteran of agents, auditions and public appearances.
In another sequence, Atkins set up a booth in an English shopping mall purporting to be casting for children's reality TV shows. The filmmakers recorded as parents happily signed waivers for their children to appear on shows with titles like "Baby Boozers" and "Take Your Daughter to the Slaughterhouse" — for which he filmed children cheerfully trying to decapitate rubber chickens.
Critics might say Atkins manipulates people in the same way as the shows he criticizes.
"We tricked people into being in our film," acknowledged Atkins, whose last film, "Taking Liberties," looked at what he saw as the erosion of civil rights under Prime Minister Tony Blair.
"Yes, we had moral qualms, but I firmly believe we're doing it for the wider point. There was subterfuge involved to serve a wider public interest."
Atkins uses the same defense for his attempts to dupe newspapers in a bid to prove that Britain's tabloids won't let the facts get in the way of a good story.
Checkbook journalism and stories sourced to anonymous "friends" are long-standing practices in Britain's popular press. Even murkier tabloid methods have come under scrutiny since 2007, when a News of the World journalist was jailed for illegally hacking into the phones of royal officials. The newspaper insisted it was a one-off blunder, strongly denying claims that phone-tapping of celebrities was widespread.
"Starsuckers" suggests that some tabloids, at least, won't let the truth get in the way of a good story. Newspapers as far afield as India printed the too-good-to-fact-check claims that a blown fuse had singed Winehouse's signature hairdo and Ritchie had given himself a black eye while juggling cutlery.
Even more worryingly, perhaps, Atkins also secretly filmed tabloid reporters as he offered to sell them medical records of celebrities' cosmetic surgery.
Buying such records is illegal in Britain, but the reporters seemed keen. They didn't know that the documents offered by Atkins — purporting to prove Hugh Grant's facelift and Guy Ritchie's chemical peel — were fake.
"We're trying to turn the tables — to put the boot on the other foot," said Atkins of his stings, which also included covertly filming celebrity publicist Max Clifford as he talked about the famous clients who pay him handsomely to keep damaging stories about them out of the headlines.
Atkins said his tactics had prompted letters from lawyers, including those working for Clifford, threatening legal action against the film.
People ‘believe what they want’
Some viewers of "Starsuckers" may feel that Atkins doesn't give people enough credit. Surely most people know that what they see on reality shows or read in the showbiz pages of tabloids might not be 100 percent true?
Clifford, whose clients include Simon Cowell, said a lot of celebrity stories are "25 percent reality and 75 percent exaggeration" — but that we shouldn't worry too much about it.
"It's entertainment," he said. "The public believe what they want to believe."
The subjects of celebrity stories are less easygoing about it. George Clooney, asked about "Starsuckers" by The Associated Press, said a combination of shrinking newspaper staffs and the Internet meant misinformation could spread instantly around the world.
"Somebody will write a story and it will be in 1,800 different outlets from one person's story," Clooney said.
"It'll be false, and you'll go, 'It's not true.' And they go, 'We're not saying that, we're saying that a London tabloid has said it.' They're just reprinting and reprinting things that aren't necessarily true."
Atkins says the problem is that the blurring of fact and fiction is not confined to celebrity stories. British newspaper editors are frequently former showbiz reporters.
It's hard not to see symbolism in the career of Piers Morgan, who went from entertainment reporter to editor of The News of the World and the Daily Mirror. After he was fired by the Mirror — for running fake photos of British soldiers allegedly abusing Iraqis — he became a celebrity himself, as a judge on "Britain's Got Talent," which launched Susan Boyle to stardom.
"It's the same journalists who write about Amy's hair who write about weapons of mass destruction," Atkins said.