Its writers moralize freely over sex, dieting, and women’s career and reproductive choices. Its addictive “sidebar of shame” catalogues every celebrity roll of fat, fashion faux pas, and shaky early-morning nightclub exit. Today it’s “the most stylish fat person you’d ever meet,” followed by the shocking story of actress Kristen Stewart disembarking from a transatlantic flight with an “unkempt” pixie cut and “looking a bit worse for the wear.”
For years the Daily Mail has been the British celebrity’s bete noir, printing every rumor—sometimes true, oftentimes false—and documenting every nipple slip for its legion of middle class readers in middle England. In 2010 MailOnline, its wildly successful internet arm, opened bureaus in Los Angeles and New York, bringing a heavy dose of the U.K.’s tabloid culture to the States. Today, MailOnline is the world’s most-read news website. And as its influence and readership expands, the paper is feeling the wrath of Hollywood mega-stars.
Earlier this week, actor George Clooney unloaded on the tabloid for publishing a “completely fabricated” story about fiancé Amal Alamuddin’s religious affiliation and his soon-to-be mother-in-law’s supposed disapproval of their coupling.
And joining him in taking up cudgels is Angelina Jolie, who is allegedly suing the Daily Mail for breach of privacy after they posted a video of the actress from her “dark days” in the late ‘90s (and originally published by the National Enquirer) earlier this week: “Bloodshot hollow eyes, emaciated arms and rambling on the phone: Haunting video of Angelina Jolie the heroin addict.”
In a landmark victory for Clooney, the world’s most unapologetic rag apologized to the actor on Friday, admitting the story was “inaccurate” while also insisting that its report was “supplied in good faith by a reputable and trusted freelance journalist.” After initially modifying the story, the MailOnline later scrubbed it altogether.
But Clooney wasn’t in a forgiving mood. “I thank the Mail for its apology,” the actor wrote in USA Today. “Not that I would ever accept it, but because in doing so they've exposed themselves as the worst kind of tabloid.” (The Daily Mail didn’t respond to a request for comment.)
Los Angeles PR guru Howard Bragman told The Daily Beast that Clooney seldom responds to the avalanche of tabloid stories about him. "He's the opposite of the boy who cried wolf. When George talks, people pay attention, and what he's trying to call attention to is this injustice, and what the Mail was trying to do was make an apology and move on. And what George was saying is, 'No, you're not moving on so quickly, guys.’” Bragman added: "It's unusual for any moderately credible journalistic outlet to pull down a story, but they did, and the apologized. And then Clooney nailed them on some of the nuance."
Bragman sees a downside risk for Clooney, that "by calling attention to it he's making a bigger story out of it.” An A-list publicist, who asked not to be identified because Clooney is not a client, called the star's response to the Mail "brilliant and ballsy” but agreed that he “might risk that they're going to get him back, that they're going to find something that they've got him on. He'll be Target No. 1 for the entire tabloid world."
He continued that Clooney might have done well by ignoring the story because he's operating in an environment where "the tabloids print these stupid, made-up pieces of crap, and even the people who read this shit don't believe it." But the Daily Mail’s website, he points out, “aggressively markets itself...as a place for showbiz gossip, particularly American gossip." Clooney's personal publicist, Stan Rosenfield, declined to comment.
And this presents an unique opportunity for American celebrities interested in damaging the Hollywood gossip machine. Indeed, it’s no coincidence that Clooney wrenched an apology from the
Daily Mail and not, say, an American publication that repeated the charges, because Britain’s strict libel laws notoriously are greatly biased in favor of complainants. As one lawyer told The Guardian, “in the UK you do not have to prove malice, as you do in America....[where] the right to freedom of expression is enshrined in the US constitution under the First Amendment.”
In the UK courts stars have long waged war on their tabloid persecutors. Back in 2006, The Guardian reported that defamation cases brought by celebrities against newspapers “have more than doubled in the past year, as an increasing number of American stars decide to fight cases in the British courts,” while noting that actress Kate Hudson sued the National Enquirer in London, where it produces a local edition, because of its favorable legal climate. The paper apologized and forked over an undisclosed sum in “damages.”
The Daily Mail’s brushes with the law in Britain are so numerous that its Wikipedia entry features a very abridged--yet still very long--list of lawsuits brought by its celebrity targets, including the “substantial damages” it paid to Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling in May.
But try as Clooney might, the Daily Mail (and it’s 180 million monthly web readers) aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. Because in a way, everyone needs the Daily Mail. The left-wing bien-pensant read it for the purpose of expressing shocked outrage, the right-wing as a source for its outrage. And while big celebrities loath its intrusion and sloppiness with facts, those chasing fame long to be in its pages.
Despite the Clooney and Jolie squalls, day in, day out, there is something for every gossip-hound to love, and feel guilty for loving--and every sentient human to hate--while secretly clicking and clicking and clicking...