A former editor for Rupert Murdoch's shuttered tabloid News of the World is defending the publication's routine use of the fictional byline “Edward Trevor,” a practice which is reportedly under investigation by Scotland Yard.
Over the weekend, The Independent reported that "[d]etectives are interested in Trevor because this 'house byline' appeared on work that for various reasons the real author did not want to be associated with." Trevor's byline appears on hundreds of stories published in the infamous British newspaper, which Murdoch closed last year amidst allegations that reporters there engaged in widespread phone hacking and police bribery.
But Stuart White, who served as News of the World's LA-based American Editor from 1994 to 2003 and is now a novelist, tells Media Matters there is nothing unique or nefarious about the use of a “house byline” like Edward Trevor, adding, “the back story to this is that both The Independent and the Guardian are obsessed with ravaging the corpse of the News of the World.”
The Independent reported that “the anonymous stories offer fresh insight into the newsroom culture at the News of the World,” noting that Trevor bylined salacious celebrity scoops, friendly coverage of the company and “would take credit for undercover investigations to conceal the identity of real reporters.” However, The Independent said, "[m]uch use of the byline was innocuous."
White views the use of fictitious bylines as a normal practice, saying in an email, “There's no great mystery to it, really. It's what they call in British journalism a 'house byline.' That is if you have a generic story that's maybe come from something on the wire, or TV and only a sub-editor has worked on it, you put on a house byline.”
“House names or fictitious names are not new in journalism in Britain,” says White. Indeed, in 2003, The Telegraph reported on fake bylines used by several tabloids (News of the World and Edward Trevor were not included).
White says Trevor's byline was routinely used during his time with the paper.
“Sometimes a reporter would write a story which for reasons of his contacts, it was better his name did not appear on it, so it would be 'by Edward Trevor,'” he says. “It's a bit like in Hollywood when they put, 'an Alan Smithee film.' It means that no-one wants their name on it."
White says, “If members of the public called in and asked for 'Edward Trevor...' and I've taken many such calls, they would be told that was a 'house' name, but then we'd ask what their query was and see if we could answer it or re-direct it. We had to be careful because such stories often guarded a reporter's identity.”
Trevor's byline appears on a handful of US-focused stories for News of the World, which range from boiler-plate coverage of current events to exclusive features.
Trevor authored generic stories about Monica Lewinsky and Newt Gingrich in the late nineties - her “return to Washington” and his “peace trip” to Dublin, respectively. Trevor also co-bylined an extensive piece in 2009 on the man who kidnapped and raped Jaycee Dugard. The piece, one of many Murdoch's News of the World and The Sun published about Dugard and her captors, included quotes from both named and anonymous sources. His co-authors, according to a copy of the article in the News Corp.-owned Factiva database, were Hannah Hargrave and Sara Nuwar.
But what White sees as a standard industry practice, others see as harmful, particularly in the wake of extensive police investigations into criminal practices by British tabloids.
Kevin Smith, chair of the Society of Professional Journalists ethics committee, believes fake bylines are problematic. “It's lying, plain and simple,” Smith wrote in an email.
He added, “If the first words someone reads of your story - your byline - is a lie, what confidence should they place in anything else that follows? To lie about something as important as your identity suggests that you will lie about facts in the story, fabricate quotes, and essentially turn your story into creative fiction.
”If, on the chance you don't lie about anything you've written but your name, how do you go about convincing the public that's the case? You can't. Once you lie as habit you surrender any and all credibility for yourself and your paper."
A press representative for the Metropolitan Police Service would neither confirm nor deny The Independent's report that the Edward Trevor byline is now part of the investigation of alleged criminality at the News of the World.
White, for his part, has little patience for critics of his former employer. "The Independent, which I read each day, baffles me with its almost pathological obsession with both the News of the World and tabloid journalism itself," he says. Of the public mood in the UK, he says people are increasingly saying “this police investigation, the Guardian's stance, Parliament's too, smacks of hysterical witch hunt rather than rational enquiry.”
Last July, The New York Times reported that White “denied... in a telephone interview that any phone hacking had taken place in the United States under his watch, including of victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks” and said “he had never even heard of the practice while he was at the paper.”
News Corp., after long maintaining illegal phone hacking was limited to a single rogue element within News of the World, has apologized after hacking was proven a common practice that senior executives covered up. The company has reportedly paid over $1 million in settlements to victims so far.
Allegations of computer hacking and phone hacking continue to plague other divisions of the company. Most recently, the Guardian reported that Sky News admitted to approving email hacking it claimed was “in the public interest.” Sky News is owned by BSkyB, a satellite broadcaster in which News Corp. has a major stake.
News Corp.'s takeover bid of BSkyB failed last year due to hacking revelations at News of the World, and the British communications regulator Ofcom is investigating News Corp.'s current role within the company.
Rupert Murdoch's son James Murdoch resigned as chairman of BSkyB last week, due to his involvement in the ongoing investigation of hacking at News of the World, but remains on the BSkyB board.