Photo by Sean Gladwell
Artillery Row Books

Tabloid fiction

A new book on journalism gets it wrong

Becky, Sarah May (Picador, £14.99)

The marketing material posits Becky as a retelling of Vanity Fair for the 21st century. As well as a relaunched Becky Sharp, it also addresses something (and someone) else, which its publishers have made rather less noise about: it’s a fictionalised account of the rise and fall of Rebekah Brooks. 

It’s this latter “Becky” who dominates much more than any homage to Thackeray.

May takes her narrator from wannabe reporter to ruthless scoop-getter before becoming tabloid editor then media group chief executive — and finally to going on trial for journalistic misdeeds at the Old Bailey. 

May sticks closely to the established Brooks facts. There’s the episode as told by her then editor Piers Morgan of when Rebekah/Becky dressed as a cleaner to steal a first edition Sunday Times so they could lift their scoop for the News of the World; the police horse given to her by an obsequious Met Police Commissioner; the notorious “name the paedophiles” campaign; the hacking of Prince William’s phone and its discovery which signalled the beginning of the end of the “Screws. On the way we get the familiar details of a James Hewitt and Princess Diana affair and its fallout, pyjama parties with Cherie Blair and so on, right down to a detailed description of the outfit Brooks wore to her trial. 

There are some tweaks to the real history though: May conflates the equally grim murders of Sarah Payne and Milly Dowler, amalgamates The News of the World and Sun into a single red top entity “The Mercury, and makes the Andy Coulson character editor of its Times-like stablemate rather than a red top. Rupert Murdoch disappears completely, replaced by an English heiress.

That’s all fair in fiction, of course. What’s harder to ignore are the many wrong notes. 

Those people were at such parties because of influence, not blackmail

At one point a “buy-up” — May doesn’t seem to know the term, but it’s long been the standard tabloid jargon for a paid interviewee — is offered £10 million for their story. The most I ever recall changing hands in these circumstances was one fortieth as much. Another time Becky commissions a news story about a heroic dog — and asks for 800 words of copy. The small left-hand page lead like that would actually run to about 200 words, and any sub given four times this would weep. There are moments that strain credulity completely: one editor trying to throw another out of an upper storey window during a dispute over a campaign in a news conference, for example.

At one point Becky hosts a party full of politicians, actors and pop stars, saying she “has a file” on all of them — to explain why they attend. The idea of so-called “Kompromat” is one of the biggest myths around the tabloids: in reality, even at their nineties revenues peak, they never had the resources to gather information on hundreds of people and then deliberately not publish it. Those people were at such parties because of influence, not blackmail. If Elon Musk invited you to his birthday party now, wouldn’t you go? Whilst still thinking he’s an idiot, obviously.

The deeper flaw is that May doesn’t catch the real Rebekah at all. She gives Becky a lack of confidence — she’s referred to at one point as “the most frightened person I’ve ever met” — when Brooks’ whole schtick was about her almost preternatural sense of certainty, even in the face of compelling counter-argument. She makes Becky socially awkward when the real thing had a kind of messianic charm that she would turn on people at will — and only the likes of Hugh Grant or Tom Watson could possibly resist. 

Why does she need to catch her? It could be argued May should have licence to use the Brooks biography as a launching point for a complete reimagining — of her as Becky Sharp, or indeed as whoever else she chooses. Then why not make it a “loosely based on”” telling? Instead both the broad story and many details therein are so close to the reality, that the implicit suggestion is of reconstructing the real person in fiction form — at which point it becomes jarring to get her so wrong.

The book zips along at a pace — but mainly to little consequence

May curiously stops her narrative immediately after the 2014 trial and acquittal, missing out the strangest part of the real Rebekah’s career — the second act, her returning to run News UK when no one thought she would or could ever work again, and those pop stars and politicians would no longer accept her invitations. 

In trying to make the Brooks narrative fit the Sharp one, we get some incongruous moments. At one point Becky is engaged in a high-powered media chat with a proprietor and two editors — then moments later a handsome man has taken her hand to run through summer rain, asking, “have you ever ridden a motorbike before?’” and racing her across town for passionate sex. 

To ram home the point that this is a re-telling, May names every major character after those in Thackeray. She does this even when it feels simply odd: one character moves through the clubs and bars of nineties Notting Hill and Chelsea whilst inexplicably being called “Dobbin” as opposed to “Toby” like everyone else. In case you haven’t got it by now, the Old Bailey QC is called “William Thackeray”.

The Vanity Fair homage ends up feeling secondary and forced. It might have worked better if May had decided between her twin conceits — Rebekah Brooks or Becky Sharpe. Instead she attempts both and neither really works. All of which is a shame because May really can tell a story. The book zips along at pace — but it mainly zips along to little consequence. 

The growing notion, that only someone with the relevant “lived experience” can legitimately write a book, is a modern absurdity. There’s absolutely no reason why May shouldn’t write a novel about the tabloids, despite having apparently never worked on them. The issue here is more that she doesn’t do it very well. 

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