In the mid-90s I was working for a news agency that specialised in celebrity gossip which we sold to the red tops - the Sun, NoW, Daily Sport, Daily Star, Matthew Wright at the Mirror and so on. There were about seven full-time staff operating out of a smoke-filled office in the back end of King's Cross. It wasn't salubrious but it was a sizeable, successful operation run by sharp and interesting characters. Paparazzi photography was in its infancy - before digital became widespread, rolls of film would be biked to Snappy Snaps in King's Cross to be developed and the pics would then be couriered on to the papers' picture desks. This was at the height of britpop mania, Noel Gallagher in Downing St, Jarvis Cocker mooning Michael Jackson, many drugs (our office reeked permanently of hash), the egregious Alan McGee at Creation records...
We had a news conference every morning when those who had not produced a minimum seven stories the previous day would be made to feel very small. If you persistently underperformed, your job would be on the line. We would make stories out of nothing. You'd meet someone at a party who'd tell you he knew someone who knew Roland Gift, say, of the Fine Young Cannibals (silent by then for years), who was living in Bath and planning a new album. You'd call that someone who would say next to nothing substantive. The next morning it would be an item at the bottom of The Sun's Bizarre column.
I remember half a dozen of us examining a picture of Justine Frischmann of Elastica (she and Damon Albarn were a couple then), snapped outside a restaurant she was just leaving, with her parents. She was in profile, full length. Was she pregnant? The women in the office were consulted and the pic was duly sent off to the Star. She wasn't pregnant, as it happened, but who cared?
Another time, we heard Tom Cruise had been seen in a supermarket in north London, and one of the lads was dispatched to get a comment. His story quoted one of the checkout girls ('He was lovely, so polite...') and detailed what he'd bought. The owner of the agency happened to visit that supermarket a few days later. He said it was a superstore, with dozens of checkouts. 'There's absolutely no way Paul could have found the one girl who'd served Tom Cruise,' he said. The fact that we'd put out a story that was 99% made up didn't worry him. Quite the opposite - he was full of admiration. 'That boy will go far,' he said.
One morning we had a serious discussion about how to go about purloining the Spice Girls' binbags (we knew their addresses, of course), bringing them back to the office and photographing the contents. There would have been a ready market for it. We'd get a van, do it in the middle of the night. I can't remember why we never carried out the plan, but it wasn't through squeamishness, legal or otherwise.
On one of my first days there the editor, a clever, intuitive hack, handed me the telephone number of Richey Edwards' parents and told me to give them a call. Richey was the unstable but brilliant Manic Street Preacher who had disappeared exactly a year before, his car found abandoned by the Severn Bridge. I was told the parents were 'cool' and would be happy to give me a comment on the disappearance of their son.
So I got on the phone. 'Ah. Mrs Edwards? Adam Lechmere here at XXX. I was just wondering, as it's the anniversary of Richey's disappearance, if you had any comment?'
There are a couple of reasons why I didn't stop - even for a second - to think about the enormity of what I was doing. These were the parents of a young man who been missing for a year, presumed dead, but with no solid proof either way. How would they be feeling a year on? Why not give them a bell and ask?
The first reason is that it was my first week in a new job, and I didn't want to rock the boat at that early stage by refusing to do something. One did what one's editor asked. But actually it never occurred to me not to pick up the phone. I did it because I could.
Richey was a celebrity and therefore fair game (just like the Spice Girls and their bins), and by extension, so were his parents, never mind that they were a decent and ordinary couple coping with the grief of losing a child. The anniversary of Richey's disappearance must have been a very difficult time, to say the least. I was a journalist locked in the eternal game of poacher/gamekeeper, hunter/prey. The story was paramount. We used to refer to those not in the game as 'civilians'. Richey's parents would have been unfortunate victims of war. It was not very real.
Not very real, that is, until I had Richey's mother on the end of the phone, quiet, surprised, it wasn't something she wanted to talk about, and what was the name of my organisation again?
This was before universal mobile phones. If it had been a few years later, and one of the many spiv-like characters who hung around the office had turned up with a transcript of Richey Edwards' phone records, I can say without doubt we would have bought them. Ditto any one of a thousand celebs we hounded daily.
What's that quote about stepping over a line, and, once done, you can tread back and forth but you can never unmake that first step?