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Film examines Britain's scandal-obsessed tabloids of the '70s

By Matthew Carey, CNN
The central character in director Errol Morris' documentary "Tabloid" is Joyce McKinney, a young American became a British newspaper fixture in the late 1970s.
The central character in director Errol Morris' documentary "Tabloid" is Joyce McKinney, a young American became a British newspaper fixture in the late 1970s.
  • Documentary "Tabloid" explores sex scandal that preoccupied British tabloids in '70s
  • Tabs reported Joyce McKinney had abducted her Mormon ex-boyfriend
  • Errol Morris has also directed "The Thin Blue Line" and "The Fog of War"

Paying cash for information. Digging up dirt on celebrities. Skirting ethical questions in pursuit of a scoop.

Welcome to the world of the British tabloids, circa 1977.

Decades before the current phone hacking scandal, the "tabs" were operating at the margin of journalistic integrity, to judge from a new documentary by Oscar-winning filmmaker Errol Morris.

In "Tabloid," Morris explores the case of the "Manacled Mormon," a sex scandal that preoccupied the British tabloids for months in the late 1970s. At its center was Joyce McKinney, a beautiful young American who allegedly traveled to London, abducted her ex-boyfriend (a Mormon missionary) and turned him into her sex slave.

A tabloid story if there ever was one. In often hilarious fashion, Morris reveals how McKinney became arguably the victim and the accomplice of two British tabloids that competed with each other to exploit the scandal.

What makes the film so timely is its focus on a corner of the newspaper industry that even then seemed more interested in generating sensation than seeking the truth.

CNN spoke with Morris (director of "The Thin Blue Line," "The Fog of War," "Standard Operating Procedure") about "Tabloid" and the phone hacking debacle unfolding in the UK.

CNN: How did you come across the Joyce McKinney story?

Errol Morris: In the Boston Globe, there was a wire service story about Bernann McKinney, who had cloned her pit bull named Booger. ... So I'm reading this article and at the very bottom of the page there is mentioned the possibility that Bernann McKinney might be Joyce McKinney, who was involved, the way it was described, as a "sex and chains" story of 30 years ago -- the "Manacled Mormon" -- a Mormon missionary who was kidnapped by his ex-girlfriend and allegedly raped. In one of her truly terrific lines in my movie, Joyce says a woman can't rape a man. "It would be like putting a marshmallow in a parking meter."

CNN: This story has plenty of mystery to it. McKinney claims her alleged victim, Kirk Anderson, went away with her willingly to a love nest in the English countryside.

Morris: I don't know all of what went down. I don't know if Kirk Anderson was taken against his will -- whether he was chained or chloroformed or abducted at gunpoint. I just don't know any of this for sure. ... I don't believe she raped Kirk. But you should go and see the movie for yourselves, decide for yourselves what you think is the truth.

CNN: The British tabloids went crazy over this story.

Morris: All of the newspapers were in on it. But the main action took place between these two newspapers (the Mirror and the Express)...

What's so fascinating about this story is once the Mirror and Express grabbed the story and started to run with it, they took opposing sides. So you have one newspaper calling Joyce McKinney a whore and you had another newspaper calling her a saint. Both can't be true. Both could be false, but both can't be true. And this struggle over narrative, struggle over story -- people throwing money at it, trying to buy this report and that, this interview and that -- yes, it got out of hand. ... Truth more or less did get thrown out the window.

CNN: Joyce claims the tabloids ruined her reputation, but the film suggests she loved the attention, and she did profit by selling her story to the Express.

Morris: I do know that Joyce -- even if she was victimized by the tabloids, and that's certainly part of the story -- she's not a complete victim. She's not an unwilling participant in all of this. It's more complex. It's more involved.

CNN: And that makes it different in important ways from the current phone hacking scandal.

Morris: Many of the current stories involving the News of the World seem to involve people who are in some real sense victims. Plain and simple. You talk about parents of a girl who has been abducted -- they don't know if she is living or dead. And the tabloid newspapers are altering evidence, tapping into phones. That, to me, whether it's a difference in kind or a difference in degree, it just seems dreadful.

CNN: You don't see what happened at the News of the World as an indictment of tabloids in general?

Morris: I'm not an expert on any of this, but it seems to me this is a scandal that may involve a tabloid-- clearly the News of the World was a tabloid newspaper -- but the scandal is not about tabloid journalism, it's about bad journalism, criminal journalism.

The problem isn't that it was a tabloid story or a series of tabloid stories. The problem is that allegedly these editors and journalists broke the law. They committed crimes. They did things that were wrong. Not just merely unethical but perhaps things that we would consider to be crimes. I say 'allegedly.' It hasn't been proved. But the stories themselves are troubling and disturbing.

CNN: So the News of the World, in effect, gave tabloid journalism a bad name?

Morris: How dare they! How dare they give tabloid journalism a bad name!

CNN: But is there a slippery slope between what the tabloids did in the Joyce McKinney case and the current phone hacking scandal?

Morris: You can easily see where it gets out of hand. ... I would say this (News of the World) scandal isn't about tabloid journalism. It's about yellow journalism. ... I think that's been with us since the beginning. As long as people have been talking and writing, people have been lying in one form or another. This may be excessive in a different way because now we have technology. We have the Internet and cell phones and on and on and on and on. The number of ways we can be deceived and we can deceive ourselves is just expanding constantly. That is different.

CNN: What do the Joyce McKinney story and the News of the World scandal tell us about journalism?

Morris: Journalism has two parts really. ... You can think of them as opposed to each other. On one hand, you've got to get viewers, you have to have people to read what you write or watch the program that you create. But part of journalism is telling the truth, is trying to capture something about the real world ... clearly, accurately, truthfully. ... Maybe we don't always get at the absolute truth, but we make the effort.

When it's simply about 'How many newspapers can I sell?' 'How many people can I get to watch my program?' and 'I really don't care about anything else,' that's where I believe problems arise. ... Once it tilts in the direct of just pure entertainment and pure viewership, journalism is the loser. The public is the loser.

"Tabloid" is now playing in select cities nationwide.