British Documentary, Starsuckers, Takes Aim at News Media

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Screen capture from the movie's Web site.

Starting this weekend, audiences in the UK will come face to face with their own obsession: celebrity.

In the new documentary, “Starsuckers,” director Chris Atkins examines the cultural phenomenon of fame using organized stunts and undercover reporting. While the film targets the UK’s abundant and notorious tabloid papers, Atkins believes that the shoddy journalistic practices of these types of publications has seeped out, infecting more credible news sources.

In a video interview with The Guardian, he said, “I think it’s a real problem now in this day and age that celebrity journalism and celebrity reporting has now spread across all parts of our news media. Everything’s about entertainment and making people laugh and a story that’s going to sell and absolutely nothing whatsoever is about the truth.”

“Starsuckers” uses different tactics to prove this point. According to the Associated Press, one stunt was pulled-off at a shopping mall in England where Atkins set up a booth to “audition” kids for ludicrous television shows like “Baby Boozers” and “Take Your Daughter to the Slaughterhouse,” which is only mildly less offensive than it reads at first glance: the wanna-be famous kids auditioned by decapitating rubber chickens.

In another stunt, Atkins attempts to sell completely fabricated stories to tabloid newpapers by offering the private medical records of celebrities, allegedly obtained from an “administrative nurse” at a cosmetic surgery clinic.

Another Guardian article by Paul Lewis focuses on this section of the film and details the responses from the Sunday Mirror, News of the World, and People, all of which expressed interest in the stories (Sunday Express avoided Atkins’ trap).

“The Sunday Mirror appeared the most willing to contemplate the purchase of medical records,” writes Lewis. After meeting Atkins, the Sunday Mirror reporter said “he expected his newspaper could ‘get away’ with stories about several celebrities who had visited the clinic. He offered £3,000 for every story published and even suggested running an article in that week’s edition. He finished by encouraging Atkins to ask the nurse to ‘get a document on everything’ kept by her employers.”

Lewis writes that the reporter for News of the World said “a public interest case could be made” for such stories, though she was more hesitant. And the People reporter described such stories as ‘very legally dodgy’ and hence needed to be backed up with documentation.”

As Lewis points out, “The obtaining of private medical records without a person’s consent is usually considered a breach of the Data Protection Act (DPA),” and the Press Complaints Commission “prohibits unjustified intrusions into privacy without a person’s consent and states the restrictions are ‘particularly relevant to enquiries about individuals in hospitals or similar situations.'”

Such breaches may not seem revelatory — after all, tabloids aren’t known for their fact-checking and ethical practices. But as Atkins said in the video interview, “We wanted to test how much truth there is in much of the celebrity stories that now completely dominate all areas of our news media.”

As imediaethics has yet to see “Starsuckers,” we can’t say whether Atkins convincingly makes this connection. But considering the recent coverage of Falcon Heene and his father’s silver balloon, the “Yes Men” Chamber of Commerce hoax that fooled CNBC, Fox Business News and Reuters, and the Latvian meteroite hoax, Atkin’s argument doesn’t seem like much of a stretch.

But if the film is meant as a wake-up call for media, Atkins’ recent blog post claims that they haven’t heard the alarm. In Tuesday’s blog post on the “Starsuckers” website, Atkins reveals that the UK Film Council did not provide support for “Starsuckers” through their Prints and Advertising Fund, which provides grants at two levels: the standard awards of up to 250,000 pounds, and the Fast-Track awards for up to 5,000 pounds, the latter of which Atkins refers to as the “f*ck off five grand.”

These grants are intended to offset the cost of releasing a specialized film, which the UK Film Council Head of Industry Relations, Tina Mcfarling, explained to imediaethics includes independent, documentary, animation, foreign, classic reissues, arthouse, and other such films.

Atkins asserts that, “As of today – to the best of my knowledge – we are officially the first British Film to be rejected for the F*ck off five grand based on the content. They have taken the view that because this film is (oh-er!) controversial, and criticises lots of important media people – some of whom are on the board of the Film Council – then they as a public body are rejecting what is supposed to be a standard & automatic grant.”

One of those “important media people” is Elisabeth Murdoch, daughter of media mogul Rupert Murdoch, whose company, News Corps, owns the British tabloid, The Sun.

Explaining that the organization doesn’t comment on whether or not someone has applied for funding, nor on applications for funding that have been unsuccessful, Mcfarling denied that all applications result in awards. “We can’t fund the release of everything, but a large number of films that do apply do get funding,” she said. Mcfarling also referred anyone interested in films that have received Specialised P&A funding to search the Awards Database.

Despite this funding obstacle, Atkins writes, “We are now getting more cinema bookings by the hour, and we will be proceeding ahead without the Film Council’s help.”

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British Documentary Starsuckers Takes Aim at News Media

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