From the outside, the tabloid vortex might look like a game, but if it is, it’s a blood sport.
This extraordinary documentary from master-of-the-medium Errol Morris couldn’t be more timely, as Amanda Knox and hackgate dominate the year’s headlines. But it’s not the acute relevance of Tabloid that makes it so revelatory, it’s the star-spangled razzle-dazzle of Joyce McKinney: temptress, Jezebel, cartoon goddess.
In 1977, a Mormon missionary went missing in southern England. He surfaced several days later alleging that McKinney – a former girlfriend, one-time Miss Wyoming and golden-haired gift to scandal-scenting London hacks – had abducted, seduced and raped him. What followed was a Wild West tabloid frenzy, in which McKinney was chewed up and spat out by the British press.
At the centre of the row were The Daily Mirror and The Express, standing on either side of battle lines drawn up by McKinney herself as the tried – disastrously – to play the system. As photographers were dispatched to LA to investigate her past (and a proper goldmine that turned out to be), the scandal turned into a farce, with McKinney eventually fleeing the country in disguise.
This salacious story is retold in detail by a mixture of friends, contemporary players and unrepentant hacks, whose forensic accounts of the anatomy of tabloid sensationalism is as fascinating as it is repugnant.
But it’s Joyce – always Joyce – who owns the show. A natural raconteur, she plays the emotional register like a gifted musician: tears, laughter, self-pity and gee-whiz charm spinning dizzyingly together. She’s the most bewitchingly unreliable narrator since Keyser Söze.
Morris has some tricks up his sleeve – including a snarky habit of literally spelling out some of the wilder claims in bold typeface across the screen. But he’s also got a point to make. Towards the end, Tabloid takes a darker turn.
The hacks keep a dehumanising distance from their work – it’s what allows them to treat people as playthings and lives as narratives. But there are always consequences. From the outside, the tabloid vortex might look like a game, but if it is, it’s a blood sport.
With memories of News of the World and Amanda Knox still fresh, Tabloid could hardly be better timed.
Riotously entertaining but with a serious point to make.
McKinney is no Robert McNamara, but there are lessons to be learned from this fog of sleaze.