Life as a journalist couldn’t have started much better for Rich Peppiatt. As an ambitious twentysomething who’d landed a gig with the Mail On Sunday, his very first assignment saw him on all expenses paid trip to Canada for three weeks. To trawl through strip club after strip club in search of a stripper by the name of Phoenix, who may or may not have had royal connections. “It was all a bit grotty and bottom of the barrel, but I thought: ‘Damn, it’s fun!’” he tells me.
The fun didn’t stop when he moved to tabloid the Daily Star. Describing himself as “that guy” always most likely to perform a wacky stunt amongst his friends, the young Peppiatt took on anything from munching down the world’s hottest chilli (crippling him for two days) to walking the streets dressed as a transvestite stripper, often pocketing a £500 bonus for doing so. It was all pretty shameless, he recalls. “You got to go to a lot of parties, drink lots of champagne and hang out with celebrities – quite a nice lifestyle when you’re in your early 20s. There were certainly parts of the job I didn’t like, but I just blocked them out.”
But the liberal-leaning Peppiatt began to grow uncomfortable as the paper began to take what he considered a distinctly anti-Muslim stance. At first, he opted to keep quiet and compliant for his career’s sake. Asked to dress up in a burqa (for a piece reinforcing the Star’s view that it should be banned in Britain), he did. A colleague spoke out about being unhappy with writing anti-immigration stories (and was forced to write every anti-immigration and anti-Muslim story for weeks until she finally broke down and quit), he didn’t.
Three years later, sat in the comfort of a warm café on a drizzly London night, it still plays on his conscience. “After two and a half years there that I realised how far down the river I was from the person I wanted to be,” he says. “It was an existential crisis. I needed to do something radical to make myself feel better about what I’d done, and rather than just resigning, going out with a bang and blowing the whistle on some of the things that had gone on felt like a powerful way to do that.”
The first part of that bang was to quit very publicly in 2011, publishing his resignation letter in The Guardian. Bluntly addressing Daily Star owner Richard Desmond (“I see a cascade of shit pirouetting from your penthouse office, caking each layer of management”) it was the moment Peppiatt finally voiced his objections to the Star’s proxy support for far-right group the English Defence League, and articulated his fears that its articles could incite acts of racially-aggravated violence.
The second part was to put together a comedy show, One Rogue Reporter, which Peppiatt has now turned into a film. In it, he takes on some of the biggest beasts of the British press, employing tabloid tactics and talking heads with media reform campaigners like Hugh Grant and Steve Coogan to turn the tables and expose their hypocrisy. Whether waving sex toys and skid-marked Y-fronts at Daily Mail editor-in-chief Paul Dacre, or digging up saucy texts sent by former ex-The Sun editor Kelvin MacKenzie to a woman who’s not his wife, no-one is safe from Peppiatt’s crosshair.
Was he worried about the repercussions of taking on a such powerful group of characters, who haven’t exactly proved averse to using the dark arts to get what they want?
“Certainly the first stunt we did [door-stepping MailOnline editor Martin Clarke] I was a bit nervous,” he answers. “But when you see the whites of their eyes as they arrive carrying the shopping home, none of that power counts. We were the aggressors, and to me it was very satisfying to see these people, who build these power structures around themselves, shrink when put in the corner.”
Peppiatt’s inspiration came shortly after resigning from the Daily Star, when a torrent of threatening phone calls and text messages began to come his way. He knows who was responsible, but instead of any legal action he chose to get even through another medium. “That was the thing, more than anything else, that spurred me on to think: ‘I can turn up at your door now, let’s see how you like it’, because I’m not going to be bullied and intimidated by these people.”
His other source of motivation came from watching “a lot of bullshit spoken by a lot of powerful people” at the Leveson Inquiry. The film features plenty of Fleet Street’s elite making extremely shaky moral arguments and showing virtually no remorse for the harm caused by the underhand tactics of their publications.
Funnily enough, a lack of compassion, empathy and remorse are three traits listed by the American Psychiatric Association as being characteristic of psychopathy. Does Peppiatt think his former industry could be one led by psychopaths?
“To claw your way to the position of editor of a British tabloid is a fairly tough task, and you’ve got to be a pretty ruthless cunt to get that far. Whether that falls under the banner of being a psychopath…I wouldn’t put it past them. I’d love to see the likes of Piers Morgan, Rebekah Brooks and Paul Dacre take a psychopath test, and if I was a betting man I’d say they might well fail.”
As it happens, on the day of our interview Guardian media commentator Roy Greenslade (who also appears in One Rogue Reporter) reports that Paul Dacre has been reappointed as editors’ code committee chairman of IPSO, the regulator that replaced the much-maligned Press Complaints Commission post-Leveson. Peppiatt tells me it’s symptomatic of an industry that feels no contrition or guilt for what occurred.
The ire in his voice is obvious. “I think we have a press that stuck its neck in for a while, while all this has blown over. But do I think there’s been a fundamental change in attitude? No. What’s sad is there wasn’t enough journalists that stood up and were prepared to say that things had gone wrong. For an industry that claims to speak truth to power and not be afraid to speak out and tell the truth, a lot of people spoke a lot of shite to protect the status quo. History will look at that as a rather sad episode in British journalism.”
As for Peppiatt himself, things have definitely changed for the better. Far from the murky world of the tabloid press, he’s a much happier person and his sense of enjoyment has returned. “I don’t feel that with everything that’s gone before I’m suddenly a good person. But at least I’m targeting it in the right direction and training my guns on those who deserve it. At the Daily Star I was targeting the wrong people – kicking downwards. These days I always want to be kicking upwards, going for people bigger and more powerful. It’s a lot more fun.”
One Rogue Reporter is in cinemas on November 7 and VoD from December 10. For full cinema dates visit oneroguereporter.com
Follow Nick Norton on Twitter @OnlyForKoolKids