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TV Review

What's in a Load of Rubbish?

Last month Channel Four screened a documentary called Scandal in the Bins that was the remarkable story of a remarkable man—Benjamin Pell. Until recently very few people had heard of Pell and today, the majority still haven't. But Pell has been popping up in the pages of Private Eye for quite some time and has recently had some exposure in the national press. Many who have heard of him know him by one of his other names—"Benji the Binman".

"Benji the Binman" is what some might call “a great British eccentric”. Others might call him a simple thief. But essentially he is a collector. A collector of rubbish—indeed, a freelance collector of rubbish. For the last few years Pell has earned a living of sorts through scrabbling round amongst the refuse of the rich and famous, their agents and solicitors. A staunch Zionist, he began by raiding the bins of pro-Palestinian organisations in London and then moved on from there. The story which really made him—and which turned him into a household name among Fleet Street editors if nobody else—concerned Elton John's financial difficulties and how they had been brought about through his mammoth and conspicuous consumption.

From that time on Benji has hardly looked back. He claimed in the programme that he is so obsessed with newspapers he used go down to Euston station every Sunday and collect them off the trains but in the last couple of years he has become a key contact for editors and newsroom managers and has had stories that he has ultimately been responsible for printed in almost every national newspaper in Britain. A man with an “anti-establishment” air about him, it is alleged that he has been heavily involved in everything from the Fayed/Hamilton case to the recent leaking of the Philip Gould memos about Blair.

Although his recent successes are reputed to have netted him £100,000 in the last year or so he lives a frugal life at his parents' modest north London semi, spending a fair proportion of his time in the garden shed where he stores his dozens and dozens of bin bags. Frail and unkempt, his immediate ambition in life is to get a second shed.

Pell's doctor describes him as an obsessive compulsive and this evidence was used in his favour during some of his many court appearances (whether as a witness, like in the Elton John case, or as a defendant). His interviews for this programme showed that he is certainly eccentric and probably what social workers, years ago, would have called "maladjusted" too. But what the programme also showed— and was at pains to point out—is that whatever he is, he is clearly not mad.

Aware of his eccentricity, Pell will accentuate his unusual behaviour even further to achieve a desired end (such as if and when he gets arrested). In the Elton John case he appeared in court dressed from head to toe in bizarre Elton John memorabilia and took little time convincing the court that he was a harmless nutter who was incapable of being part of any conspiracy of any description. On his late night scavenging forays he will make sure he smells as badly as possible lest he get arrested, as was demonstrated when one of the programme's hidden cameras showed him being stopped by a police officer who, after a few seconds of questioning, started to search Pell and then hesitated, pulled a face, stopped and then left him to fester in peace.

Rat trap
Scandal in the Bins did a good job showing the human side of Pell—his eccentricity, his very real fear of going to prison and his sheer craftiness. Although Neil and Christine Hamilton were featured saying that Pell had been one of the people who had helped to ruin their lives (as if they hadn't had a hand in it themselves) Pell showed himself to be at least as hostile to the press as they now find themselves to be. Rightly or wrongly, he sees himself as someone getting as much out of the press as he can by putting his compulsive disorder to use making a living. In the process he causes trouble to the powerful and—more often than not—as a lonely one-man band is the victim of the news corporations' manipulations, not their primary cause.

Pell claimed that British newspapers are just as corrupt as the people they are allegedly exposing and, naturally enough, he has a ready audience for that view as few outside the British media would disagree with it. Scandal in the Bins had plenty of evidence for it as well. In the most revealing section of the programme two of the most powerful men in the British media—PR guru Max Clifford and Sun political editor Trevor Kavanagh were shown up, with help from Pell, for being the hypocrites they really are.

Clifford's own PR façade slipped when he walked out of an interview with the programme's makers shouting and screaming at the film crew for asking him questions about his business methods (even though he didn't bat an eyelid at their seemingly irrefutable evidence that he had perjured himself in a court case) while Trevor Kavanagh was heard telling an interviewer that the Sun had never paid Pell for a story or for any of his illegal activities. As the tape played, the screen showed copies of News International's invoices regarding payments to Pell for services rendered. Brilliant television, achieving what few—if any—have previously managed to do.

This is not to give the impression that Pell is an entirely blameless character either—he certainly isn't. He has done his fair share to upset the lives of those he had otherwise no reason interfering with and has readily accepted payment for doing so. The point is that despite his own clear shortcomings his (partial) co-operation with this documentary did as much to expose the systematic hypocrisy and double-dealing of the British press as anything yet shown. If Channel Four repeat it soon (and no doubt they will) try and catch it if you didn't see it first time around.

In the meantime, it is worth asking yourself when you next see an eye-catching article in the press—whether it be a “serious” investigation by Insight in the Sunday Times or an expose of some pop star's business dealings in the tabloids—about where the information for the piece came from and of the unbridled skulduggery that took place to get it into print so more newspapers could be sold and more advertising attracted. And when you're doing that remember to spare a small thought, at least, for a poor Jewish boy from north London with an obsessive compulsive disorder and a shed full of bin bags.

DAP