How Rupert Murdoch killed off blackmail

The Mail on Sunday, October 17 1993

When Basil Tozer – historian of crime and caddish behaviour -produced his study of Confidence Crooks and Blackmailers in 1929, he was in no doubt about the importance of his work. “This book,” he wrote, “will, if read carefully, enable even simpletons to avoid being duped by rogues.” To help the simpletons, he spelled out the suffering of the unwary in cautionary tales of terrible significance. Like this one…

“A man of high position, who was well known in London Society but who was in the habit of associating with people of disagreeable character, suddenly disappeared. Where he had gone or why he had gone, even his most intimate friends did not know. All that was known was that he had left instructions for his town house, furniture and other personal property to be sold without reserve.

“Recently, the man died. It then transpired that since his disappearance, he had been living alone in a cottage in the west of Ireland. And the reason was this. One night in London, he had been taken by some of his undesirable acquaintances to a house of ill-fame. There, certain photographs had been taken of him without his knowledge.

“With these photographs in their possession, the scoundrels had blackmailed him and continued to blackmail him, threatening that if he failed to pay they would send prints of the photographs to all his relatives and friends anonymously. Terrified, knowing that if that happened he would be hounded out of society for ever, disgraced, he had paid and paid until reduced to poverty.”

Basil Tozer had scores of stories like that, for he lived in dangerous times, when blackmail was part of the regular routine of London villains: the threatening letter written in hacked-out chunks of newspaper; the rich and respectable citizen ruined by one moment of sin; the occasional trial full of mouth-watering euphemisms. In Tozer’s day, blackmailers were so busy that the courts felt compelled to threaten them with penal servitude for life. Yet now, they are as rare as a ruby. Genuine blackmail – extortion by the threat of embarrassment – is extinct as a profession and almost dead even as an act of opportunism.

The strange and lonely death of the English blackmailer is, at first sight, an occasion to rejoice. He was always a despicable figure with his suitcase full of other people’s secrets and his grasping, grubby hands and, occasionally, his almost lustful delight in rubbing the victim’s nose in their sin (“You have only yourself to blame, Lady X”). It is the nature of his death which first suggests that there is something here to mourn. The little villain, you see, was murdered.

It is true that he appears to belong to another era – of tin baths and gas light and the vengeful pinch of arsenic in the Irish stew – and he is buried now alongside the cat burglars and pick pockets and all the other villains whose skills have faded into history. But it was not old age that killed him. On closer inspection, you can see the marks of a frantic struggle in which the blackmailer was slowly suffocated and thrown aside by a bigger and more powerful villain who is still at large and still enjoying his victim’s goods. I refer, of course, to our national newspapers.

In a world where Fleet Street’s cheque book will buy the secrets of any rich man’s scandal, there is no room for the blackmailer. The most recent example is the male prostitute who claims to have been having sex in a raincoat with one of John Major’s advisors (male). Years ago, he would have terrorised the man with threats and allegations until he got what he wanted. Now, he simply hops into a taxi and turns up at the offices of the Sunday People to collect his reward.

Numerous scandals of the last decade have begun in this way: the Queen’s bodyguard, Michael Trestrail, driven from the palace when a rent boy went to the press; Lord Dervaird, forced to resign from the Scottish bench in similar circumstances; Frank Bough, betrayed twice in four years by prostitutes who flogged him and then flogged the story; the President of the Scottish Conservatives, sold to the Sun by a prostitute with bruises on her backside; David Mellor, ransomed to the Sunday People, complete with transcripts of telephone calls; Jeffrey Archer, deposed and then rehabilitated after a Mayfair hooker’s punter thought he had seen him in compromising circumstances and started an auction.

It is a kind of extortion-by-proxy and – from the betrayer’s point of view – it is full of advantages. Newspaper barons are far richer than most of the people whose lives they expose and so they can afford to pay far more for their secrets. More than that, it is legal. As long as they recycle their greed through a press baron’s bank account, the treacherous prostitute and the jilted lover have nothing to fear and thousands to gain. And this is where you may begin to miss the company of Basil Tozer’s professionals.

For a start, they took some risks and they also had some skill. They could hardly rely on good chance to supply them with enough embarrassing secrets to ensure a steady income. They had to procure their victims, and Tozer is eloquent on the dangers of bogus nursing homes with seductive nurses, of respectable strangers who invite you “to witness some nude dancing” and of phony psycho-analysts (“Before the first sitting had ended, the patient had generally described events in her past life which, under normal circumstances, nothing would have induced her to speak about”).

More important, the professional blackmailer left his victims with a way out. He was offering to sell his silence – the victim had been tempted and had sinned and was being offered a kind of redemption – but Mr Murdoch and his gang make no such concession. If the price is right, they’ll ruin you and send you straight to hell.

As the rewards of this surrogate blackmail soar, the game is bound to change. Newspapers will soon take a leaf out of the old professionals’ book and start to procure their own scandals. Those with sins to hide will fight back – by demanding legislation to protect their private parts and by taking out new Exposure Reduction insurance policies so that if they are caught, they can hire vicious lawyers to stifle reports of their behaviour. Thus threatened, the press will cut its losses by agreeing to publish no more such filth; instead, they will become mere watchdogs of private morality, agreeing to pass such stories to their subjects, providing, of course, that the subject is willing to make a suitable donation.