Why has Britain got such a rude, raucous, rough red-top press? How come we seem to be one of the few countries where a mix of celebrity gossip, sport, sensationalism and partisan politics sells in millions every day? What created this beast that both hounds the famous and the powerful and tramples on the ordinary citizen?
I only ask because I keep getting interrogated on this by international journalists who interview me about media in the UK. In the wake of the News of the World phone-hacking scandal they are particularly bemused at what they routinely describe as “your gutter press”.
I patiently point out to them the virtues of a robust, unregulated press that is tough enough to take on those in authority. I remind them that many agenda-setting revelations of corruption or deceit are broken by the tabloids. These tabloids care about the less grandiose affairs that impact on most people’s lives. I point out that they are also read by expensively educated folk who hold down important jobs and pay high rates of tax. I emphasise how competitive our newspaper market is and that the tabloids are very popular, so they must be doing something right.
“But,” say the foreign journalists, “we have nothing as horrible as your tabloids, and we live in healthy democracies. Is this some kind of English disease?” Generally speaking they are right. Few other countries have so many high-circulation newspapers that pack this heady punch of politics, sex and sport in such an aggressive, swaggering style. It can’t all be Rupert Murdoch’s doing – we even have a leftwing tabloid. So what is it?
There are some boring factual reasons. Historically, the British newspaper market was industrialised, nationalised and centralised early, allowing market segmentation. Railways carried the papers to a well-educated mass readership. We developed the tabloid habit early and it became part of our lives at breakfast, on the bus and tube, or served up before the Sunday roast.
Since the early 20th century, a series of ideologically driven proprietors have exploited the press’s commercial value and political power. Our adversarial parliamentary system was a perfect fit for this kind of populist, partisan press. From Jonathan Swift to the Sun, we rapidly developed a tradition of the ribald and parti pris.
By the eve of the second world war, the philosopher RG Collingwood (somewhat romantically) contrasted the factual nature of Victorian newspapers with what he saw as a barbarian modern media age, ushered in by the Daily Mail, where the reader was encouraged to “think of the news not as the situation in which he was to act, but as a mere spectacle for idle moments“.
Culture has a lot to do with it. Our Anglo-Saxon prurience whets an appetite for naked flesh and the intrusion of privacy. There is also a British sentimentality that celebrates the myths of a Blitz spirit, royal romance and sporting prowess – before indulging in that other national pastime, of lamenting our fall from grace.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that other countries don’t have tabloid journalism. It’s just that they put it on different platforms and in different guises. In many Latin countries the trash goes on the telly. Other countries have lurid magazines. Even the Germans have Stern, with its mixture of nudity and political analysis.
It’s a long time since I worked on a tabloid. But that was where I learned all the fundamentals of reporting. Perhaps the fact I moved on just proves what a stereotypical north London liberal I am. Certainly, I am appalled by the phone-hacking scandal and the culture that encouraged that kind of behaviour.
But I also think that the tabloid mentality is a vital part of press freedom in Britain. Only the tabloids – even when owned by a Murdoch – could stand outside of the establishment consensus. Journalism needs to campaign, investigate and debate, but above all it must entertain or it loses our attention. Our red-tops do a good job of all that when they work well. Of course, like other papers, their sales are dropping and as journalistic resources are slashed, so the bile and bilge replaces the fun and the serious dirt-digging. The so-called qualities are increasingly sharing their celeb-fuelled agenda.
In the end this is, inevitably, about class. For “the workers” the tabloids are a welcome relief, for the middle classes they are a guilty pleasure. I suspect the real reason we love them is the same reason we love binge drinking and fox hunting; it’s a national delight in base pleasure and ritual cruelty.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010
Seit 1996 bin ich freier Mitarbeiter der Salzgitter-Zeitung, als Experte für das Geschehen im hiesigen Kreisfußball. Daneben sind meine Kolumnen seit 2005 fester Bestandteil im Lokalteil der Salzgitter-Zeitung. Zusammen mit Frau und Tochter sowie zwei gefräßigen wie faulen Stubentigern versuche ich das zu meistern, was das Leben, das Universum und der ganze Rest an Absurditäten für uns bereithalten.