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Issue 40, July/Aug 1999

Tabloid Television

L?ve TV, Tellybrats and Topless Darts: the Uncut Story of Tabloid Television
By Chris Horrie & Adam Nathan, 1999, Simon and Schuster
Reviewed by Sean Dodson

DESPITE BEING one of Britain's least watched television stations, the Mirror Group's cable television channel, L!ve TV, has earned itself one of multi-channel broadcasting's most notorious reputations.

Its low-budget mix of news, celebrity gossip and soft porn has been mocked, almost universally, ever since it began broadcasting in 1995. And yet the channel's story, how Britain got its first truly tabloid television station, and how four years later it still struggles to find a popular audience, encompasses the recent history of the British media. More or less.

The authors, Chris Horrie and Adam Nathan, have also produced a very funny book. Their plot - telling of how Kelvin MacKenzie, the former editor of the Sun, Janet Street-Porter, self-styled inventor of 'Yoof' television and David Montgomery, the now former-chief executive of Mirror Group newspapers, came to work on the Mirror Group's foray into multi-channel television - is loaded with comic potential, so big are the egos of L!ve's aforementioned players. And although the authors seem to have anchored their book in the responsible waters of thoroughly-researched journalism, their characters, more often than not, appear as Gerald Scarfe-like caricatures, with blinding accents, narcissistic tendencies and a gut-full of ambition (which is one thing the authors do give an awful lot of credit for).

That a seemingly esoteric subject about the launch of a, lets face it, minority cable television channel, should tell the wider story of how Britain's media industries underwent a Thatcherite revolution (which in itself hints at some of the most significant themes in recent history), should come as little surprise to readers of Chris Horrie's previous books. Ever since Disaster: the Rise and Fall of News on Sunday, his books have always carried a fairly overt political sub-text, not least the Lefts failure to match the popularism of the Tory press and the subsequent undermining of trade union power that allowed Thatcher to consolidate her grip on the British public.

L?ve TV continues these themes, largely through telling the stories of MacKenzie and Street-Porter, two of the most successful, and most different, figures in the British media. Some will also, quite rightfully, see this book as a continuation of Horrie's Stick It Up Your Punter: the Fall and Rise of the Sun, as both books perform a role as an unofficial biography of MacKenzie (indeed Punter! had been updated and republished to coincide with the launch of L?ve). As with Punter!, Horrie betrays a complex relationship with his favoured subject. Behind his caricature lies a complex mix of admiration and loathing. Admiration, of MacKenzie's obvious skill in the art of tabloid journalism, his marketing abilities and his flair for, yes, 'giving the people what they want'. And yet a loathing of the tabloid maestro, principally for his xenophobia and his role in helping to "wreck popular journalism, (while) sucking all the profits and public respect out of it, even unto the point where journalists were less trusted than estate agents".

  Janet Street-Porter (nee' Bull) fairs no better. In fact her lampooning is, if anything, more savage. With a skill for rendering phonetic speech that reminds one of Tom Wolfe, Street-Porter's cod-cockney accent is routinely mocked throughout the book. Thus her massiffly innervitiff attempt to introduce British television to her vision of 'Hello! on acid', on a budget of 2,000 per hour and staffed by a group of hapless, under-paid, and often under-age 'tellybrats', forms roughly the first half of L?ve.

This is then contrasted with the coming of MacKenzie, who is seen to help oust Street-Porter and turn the channel away from her concept of an alternative national television channel into a TV version of The Sun, replete with topless darts, tarot cards, stuttering newspresenters, and the weather in Norweigen. A wholesale culling of Street-Porter's ideas and staff then takes place before MacKenzie himself ups and leaves.

Despite being a sad indictment of many of the key figures in the British media, this book is a joy to read. Its good humour carries with it a considered polemic against low-quality television and the political and economic climate that created it. It also shows in some detail the machinations of the multi-channel television industry, the coming of pay TV, and the eventual kow-towing to Rupert Murdoch, by just about everybody.

At times the caricature might be too savage for some; a fair few personal insults are dished out by the authors who do use physical descriptions to carry pejorative meanings. But essentially this book hopes only to use its satire to show the recent failings of much of Britain's deregulated television industry, to highlight exploitation in the media industry, and to illustrate one of the biggest personality clashes in the British media in recent years.


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