Media: The tabloid bulldozer rolls on: In 10 or 20 years, today's editors might look on the Nineties as the age of journalistic innocence, says Michael Leapman

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THERE is an old American joke about a teacher asking a mother why her son, in a classroom discussion, claimed his father played the piano in a brothel. 'Because the truth is worse,' the mother sobbed. 'He works for Hearst newspapers.'

The summer's three major tabloid scandals - the Fergie one, the Squidgy one and the tacky one - are further reminders that the popular press has never behaved in a way that the moulders of respectable opinion think fit. While the bounds of what is reported grow more and more permissive, what does not change is the chorus of tut-tutting from commentators on radio and television and in non-participating newspapers.

We are always being assured that this time the scandal sheets have gone too far. Yet what is too far for one generation is never far enough for the next. It is like breaking records in athletics: an extra split second can always be shaved off.

A few years ago Lord Hartwell, the former proprietor of the Daily Telegraph, wrote of the shock he felt in 1936, when the Daily Mirror wrote about Queen Mary wearing peep-toe shoes - a story, he felt, that 'bulldozed the boundaries of taste'. The bulldozer has been ploughing ahead ever since: now toes do not make news unless subjected to a lover's ministrations.

In 1950, Viscount Kemsley, then a newspaper proprietor, deplored papers that 'make circulation the be-all and end-all of their existence, and use every device of sensationalism and every trick of triviality to serve that end'. He added: 'The dignity of a journalist is reduced when he is asked to intrude into the private affairs, and in particular the private grief, of others' - since when countless journalists have thrown dignity to the winds to get their foot in the door.

Three years later, Randolph Churchill, the scourge of the popular press in the Fifties, denounced the 'river of pornography and crime that streams today from Fleet Street' and said the tabloids 'masquerade as newspapers when in reality they get their sales from crime and sex and, of course, inaccurate impertinences about the royal family thrown in'.

In 1958 The Times, under Sir William Haley, wrote a stern editorial following complaints that reporters had harassed the parents of a murdered girl: 'Things are done in the name of the press that must make any decent-minded, let alone sensitive, journalist feel ashamed.'

This provoked a furious response from Hugh (now Lord) Cudlipp, then editorial director of the Daily Mirror. He spoke of 'an orgy of self-destructive propaganda' from the 'self-styled quality papers', which seemed to believe that 'while they are busy every day bringing down 10 more tablets from Mount Sinai, the popular press was solely occupied with the activities of Sodom and Gomorrah'.

Now fast forward to 1988, when Lord Cudlipp gave the main address at the memorial service in St Bride's, Fleet Street, for Lord Jacobson, the first editor of the Sun and, before that, a respected political editor of the Daily Mirror. With stooped shoulders and his famous shock of hair now quite white, Lord Cudlipp, mustering all the passion of a reformed sinner, launched into an attack on contemporary tabloid mores, comparing them with those in force when he was in charge.

What we had today, he raged, was 'intrusive journalism for the prurient'. The basic human right of privacy had been banished in the interests of profit. It was the time of 'the daily nipple-count and the sleazy stories about bonking bimbos . . . a panting seven-day and seven-night news service for voyeurs on the homo and hetero peccadilloes of television stars and the ordained . . . the exclusive definitive autobiographies of kiss-and-tell nymphets aged 18-and-a-half and, of course, though on a marginally higher plane, the latest inanities in the royal soap opera'.

This attack from a man who used to be one of them had no influence on the tabloids' subsequent conduct. Lord Hartwell's bulldozer has no reverse gear. Lord Cudlipp seemed to have forgotten what he knew well enough 30 years earlier; that the popular press has never accepted the restraints that others - though not its readers - would like to impose on it.

Nor will it. By the time Rupert Murdoch qualifies for his memorial service at St Bride's, the present editors of the Sun and News of the World, as well as those of the Times, Sunday Times and Today, will surely be on hand to look back fondly on the Nineties as the age of innocence, compared with the dreadful things going on under their successors in the early years of the 21st century.

Parts of this article are adapted from Michael Leapman's 'Treacherous Estate: The Press after Fleet Street', published by Hodder and Stoughton tomorrow; pounds 18.99.