Let's all blame the tabloids

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Indy Lifestyle Online
A privacy law is looming for the national press. This is not, of course, the fault of us broadsheet journalists. Good grief no. We're interested in bringing you the whole truth and nothing but, aren't we? Our business is in exposing crooks, holding parliament up to public scrutiny and explaining things that you wouldn't otherwise have time to digest. No, the blame rests squarely of our tabloid brethren, the gutter press who peddle sleaze and propaganda, who lurk in bushes behind the penthouse suites of soap stars and princesses.

Of course, we have always suspected that The Tabloids Cannot Be Trusted, but since Diana was pursued to her death by bloodthirsty paparazzi, the argument is over. Earl Spencer might have said in the heat of the moment that all newspapers editors and proprietors had blood on their hands that day, but it was the tabloid editors he banned from his sister's funeral. Now these same editors are going to be responsible for a broad- brush privacy law which will prevent real newspapers from seeking out truths vital to the public interest.

If only it were all so clear-cut.

Things have been uncomfortable here at Canary Wharf ever since the Independents came over to join the Mirror titles and our shared canteen ran out of Earl Grey tea bags. This was taken as a bad sign by both sides. But in recent weeks, for many broadsheet newspapers, tabloid-baiting has become almost a daily sport.

In a recent article in the Independent, Polly Toynbee advised aspiring journalists: "Do not imagine that starting on the Daily Grub or Sunday Scum is a first rung on a ladder to something honourable," she wrote. "Unless you are exceptionally lucky, it is only a training in grubby and scummy journalism. What's more, for anyone with even a few ideals it will be humiliating and probably shameful."

Aside from being arrogant and patronising, the assumption that only people who write for A2-sized publications have any honour is also more than a little bit convenient. We are washing the blood from our hands by wiping them on the dirty rags at the lower end of the market.

In fact broadsheet papers have spent years riding on the coat-tails of our high-circulation counterparts, scurrying after the stories they have dared to break. Every broadsheet paper runs its own version of "Titillating Tales Ripped Off From the Tabs". At least the tabloids play it straight.

When I joined the Independent on Sunday from the Sunday Mirror the real difference as a reporter was that the words were longer and you could make more than one point in a paragraph. (A tabloid hack once said that the two longest words he had ever tried to get into the Sun were "marmalade" and "corrugated iron" - when he looked in the paper next day they had been changed to "jam" and "tin"). Many more of the same subjects were covered than you might think.

Yes, there were fewer moral dilemmas, fewer rows over whether some stories were really justifiable, but if you are afraid of moral dilemmas and you can't win an argument you probably shouldn't be in journalism. It's much harder working for tabloids, getting a complex idea across simply and concisely, weeding out all the words you'd stuck in to make yourself look clever. It can be good for the soul to write about what people are talking about in the pub, rather than what you think they ought to be.

Most of all I loved the people that I worked with, who far from being the scum of the earth, are in the main decent people from ordinary backgrounds who love a job they see as primarily being about the pursuit of truth; people who haven't disappeared just because Paul Foot and John Pilger fell out with the tabloid world. I moved newspapers for a better job, not because there was anything inherently superior about working for a broadsheet.

On Tuesday Andrew Marr, the editor of the Independent, wrote a moving elegy to the paper's late columnist Ruth Picardie, which went beyond an obituary to become almost a vindication of journalists. Look, he said, there are still a lot of good, decent journalists. I would like to make that sort of claim for the tabloid hacks I have worked with.

We are all of us in the gutter, but you don't have to work for a broadsheet to be looking up at the stars.

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