Becks, sex or Iraq: you pays your money...

It's been a week of skewed priorities in the press. But who is better served: the tabloid reader or the broadsheet reader?
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The Independent Online

The saga continues. As with the war in Iraq a year ago, the Daily Mirror labels each day. In the Mirror calendar, today is "Becks sex scandal day 14". There are two universes out there, the one peopled by factions trying to drive the coalition out of Iraq and win the battle for power in the mess that would be left behind, the other occupied by the sleazy, the chancers, the manipulators, the fantasisers and the footballer. To those of us, the overwhelming majority, who have never been to Iraq, the White House or Number 10, and have never played football for Real Madrid, topped the pops or retained Max Clifford, it seems like serious unreal versus ludicrous unreal. One is serious because people get killed; one is ludicrous because its central character, the footballer, says it is.

Are we literally paying our money and taking our choice? On the one hand it is 30p for The Sun and 35p for the Daily Mirror; on the other it is 50p for The Times, 60p for The Independent. The former buys you Posh and Becks and Loos and Marbeck, the latter Muqtada al-Sadr and Bush and Blair and kidnapping. And since red-top Sun/Mirror/Star sell about 6.2m copies a day, while so-called quality Telegraph/Times/Independent/Guardian sell about 2.2m copies a day, it would seem that approaching three times as many people are taking Becks as Iraq.

Is it a simple either/or, a question of which sort of newspaper gives more emphasis to which story? During this past week, on my rough count, the Mirror and Sun have given about five times as much space to Becks as they have to Iraq, typically five pages a day of sleaze to a little under one page of Iraq chaos. The quality newspapers have given about six times as much space to Iraq as they have to Becks, typically three pages a day (tabloid or equivalent) of Iraq to half a page of Becks. And of course the content has been qualitatively different in the case of the Becks story, with alleged lovers kissing and telling in the red-tops while the so-called quality papers restricted themselves to such anodyne items as Posh and Becks consulting lawyers or Sky buying the TV interview with Ms Loos. The Iraq story covered the same ground in both market sectors.

In terms of knowledge of the other universe the red-top buyers are in the superior position. Despite the brevity of the reporting they know roughly what is going on in Iraq. The readers of the quality titles, on the other hand, know almost nothing of the detail of the Beckham crisis. This would not matter if these papers ignored the story completely and treated it as though it was not there. But curiously they behave as though their readers do know what is going on, while not providing such information themselves. The Telegraph even devoted an article to Miss Loos's fashion style while saying little about who Miss Loos was or her position in contemporary society.

Those living in the media village tend to disregard their readers in a rather crucial way. They forget that most buyers of newspapers buy one title, and gather their information from that paper. If that is The Independent or Guardian, Times or Telegraph, then they know very little of the details of the Beckham allegations. And yet their newspaper of choice has made glancing reference to alleged infidelity, text messages or Posh's reluctance to spend time in Madrid, without naming key names or providing any context or quotation.

Journalists, who read all the papers, dine out on their knowledge of what has or has not been published elsewhere. It is very hard to prepare a newspaper when you have all that background knowledge and cannot get on the wavelength of readers who do not. The usual excuse, that the public's first source of news is radio or television, doesn't wash. For a start the News of the World and others are claiming, and paying for, exclusivity. And second, radio and television are as wary as the quality newspapers are - on grounds of both legality and taste - of publishing allegations about the Beckhams.

Which makes for baffled viewers and listeners too. Take the case of Radio 5. They have talked constantly of "the allegations" while going to great lengths not to detail them. They have sent a reporter into the Alps to "doorstep" the Beckhams' villa while pretending that they are not covering the story. They have run phone-ins - one entitled "Are we fair to our celebrities?" - in which studio guests are cautioned against even the foothills of explicitness and members of the public call in to say, at considerable and opinionated length, that they have no interest in this inconsequential story. Even those admitting that they regularly read The Sun or The News of the World claimed to have ignored the five or seven pages dealing with the Beckhams. What a waste of money!

And Sky's viewers saw a long interview with a woman, Miss Loos, about whom they knew little unless they had read a red-top. Why then was Sky paying a lot of money for the interview and broadcasting it?

We are left with a situation in which viewers and listeners and readers of non red-top newspapers know very little about a series of kiss-and-tell allegations from women who have been paid a lot of money by red-tops and Sky TV, and those who buy the papers that are printing the allegations claim not to be reading them. Very odd.

Happily the few moments in which Posh felt wretched seem to have passed, and she and her husband have returned to everyday celebrity life, breaking off their intense discussions once an hour for a photo-call, to change into a new outfit or to talk to their advisers. Normal soap service has been resumed, and nobody seems to be pondering at all whether the allegations are or are not true, or whether the marriage is under any strain. We have moved on.

A poll last week (from Communicate Research) showed that MPs who were triumphalist about the Hutton report have not moved on. A majority was concerned about the degree of impartiality of BBC news, and felt that ITN and Sky were more impartial. They want regulation of the BBC taken from the governors and given to Ofcom. Matters that will be debated. But are these MPs unaware of the reaction to Hutton? That public confidence in the BBC is greater than that in MPs?

Peter Cole is professor of journalism at the University of Sheffield

Media Diary

Springer is sprung

As German media giant Springer bids £700m for the Telegraph titles, it's worth pointing out that its chief executive Mathias Dopfner was a journalist before moving to the commerical side of the business. He understands about resource sharing, and so it has to be asked how many correspondents the Telegraph would need in the EU if it could share with Bild, Die Welt, Berliner Morgenpost and Hamburger Abendblatt? There would a need for lessons in Euro-scepticism but the synergies are obvious. Can any of the other bidders offer a network of dedicated staff throughout Europe?

There is the news...

Are the popularising aspects of ITV News starting to run (literally) out of hand? When US-based correspondent Robert Moore (left) does his Washington bulletins from his position on Capitol Hill he will typically jab a forefinger diagonally upwards and to his right (i.e. screen left) to indicate the US Congress, which meets in the domed building behind him. On a dispatch the other evening Moore mentioned that President Bush had been to North Carolina. To accompany this remark he gesticulated hard, pointing to the right of where he was standing - presumably in the very vague direction of North Carolina! Whatever next? News reporters pointing in the direction of France (left), Scotland (right) and Australia (straight down) when the moments arise?

Sex in the Ceefax

Is Ceefax not immune from the general media tendency to plunge downmarket? That most anonymous of news sources seems to have decided that it is more the Daily Star than the Press Association - at least if the following teaser it came up with last week is anything to go by: "Do you have sex with strangers?" That was the top line on its index - not quite what you expect to find when all you are after is a Jamie Oliver recipe.

Finger on the button

Don't mention it to Michael Grade, but next week is Television Turn-Off Week. We all watch the box 3.5 hours a day apparently, and the White Dot campaign claims our time is better spent in other ways. If we're talking last week's Rebecca Loos interview on Sky One, who would disagree?

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