Thursday, 4 March 2010

Duncan Williams, tabloid dirt digger turned positive media guru :
An article by Liz Oldfield (Hunter) for / Church and Media Network

Duncan Williams has seen the very worst of the media world. Working as a tabloid ‘dirt-digger’ in the late 90s he spent his days seeking out celebrity stories in a culture where bribery, blackmail and stealing rubbish was the norm. Even born again Christian Jonathan Aitken once phoned to call him "a lying, underhanded s++t!." Now, though, Duncan owns his own ethical publishing company with a keen vision of building up struggling local and regional titles, and helping them to keep giving a voice to communities who are often drowned out in the noise of globalisation. He deliberately employs a proportion of ex-offenders and those recovering from addiction - and insists on a strongly positive editorial policy. In a nightmare market, the company is going from strength to strength. So how did he get from one to the other?

Duncan’s first contact with the media was through editing his school magazine, which he quickly renamed Bronco after a notorious brand of toilet roll. Writing gave him and his rebellious school friends a chance to let off steam, and he was hooked. At age 17 he moved from the West Country to London to attend film school, and went on to have a career in new media and film advertising throughout the 90s boom years. It was a destructive environment, with a heavy drinking culture, but even then Duncan says “writing was really a form of prayer, a way of getting in touch with my real myself when I couldn’t always express things well verbally".

A move into print at the end of the decade proved lucrative - whilst selling advertising for a series of high profile London magazine titles, Duncan realised that the real money was in sensationalist news and set himself up as a freelance investigator for all the major tabloids.

Kept on retainer, he would be given a brief by an editor and set about finding, or creating, a story about them. One well read middle England title, he recalls, would particularly like tittle tattle about society women and would pay very handsomely for insider gossip. It’s wasn’t just journalists that are paid by the papers - behind the staff whose names appear on by-lines there is a huge network of contacts receiving a monthly fee for feeding in stories, from celebrities’ close 'friends' to hairdressers and even doctors. It was not unusual to see suitcases of cash changing hands. Duncan had regular dealings with ‘Benji the Binman’ who made his fortune hunting for scandal in rubbish, and would also employ covert surveillance. Even if all that failed it didn’t mean the story was dead. “I clearly remember one day seeing a front cover of renown Sunday tabloid, a story about Robbie Williams, and knowing that 90% of it was distorted from fact, because I had engineered most of these embellishments. Robbie went on to sue and win a large out of court settlement, but most of the time, for the papers, it was worth it”. As several recent revelations about tabloid reporting practice confirm, he doesn’t think much has changed.

"Today, one rewarding amend for me, " says Duncan. " Is that I am able to commission the very celebrity targets of my past life to write positive pieces for my own publications. Obviously, celebrities have feelings too... and fortunately forgiveness is often one of them!"

Duncan says that there was no blinding light epiphany for him, just a realisation over several years that his life had “bottomed out”. He sought help with his heavy drinking and excessive lifestyle, and became a committed Catholic Christian. Not long after he made the decision to use all the money he had made to set up his own independent news company. With the support of some old tabloid colleagues, angel investors and some big hearted celebrities, this step forward seems to have worked out.

Duncan thinks it’s the most exciting time to be in papers, and that the laments over the death of journalism are misguided. Change is inevitable, but not disastrous, and can be a chance for good. There are huge opportunities for those who want to be influential people of integrity. He was able to buy shares in several large media companies after the price had dropped by 90% last year and is now on the board of five of these; “There are huge opportunities for those who want to be influential people of integrity. The digital revolution will eventually provide far more readers for local titles once they’ve embraced new platforms; Things like Kindle and the iPad provide an amazing way to get positive, ethical stories out there, and we’re showing that there is an audience for it.”

The titles owned by Duncan, and his group of positive independent news companies, including the Christian Free Press limited, are trying to make a stand against the “propaganda of negativity” that he thinks so shapes our thinking. Like many of us, and even having seen the very darkest side to the media, he passionately believes it can be a force for good.

*(Update.) Since this article was first published in 2010, Independent News Limited, Duncan Williams Limited and Christian Free Press Limited, have each distributed hundreds of thousands of Good News papers and magazines into hospitals, prisons and community centres throughout the UK.