Red-top redemption: Why tabloid journalism matters
The reputation of the tabloids is lower than ever. But despite hacking, they still perform a vital role, argues red-top veteran Ros Wynne-Jones
Friday 22 July 2011
An industry known for its witch hunts can hardly complain when the hunter becomes the hunted. As the paparazzi's flash bulbs light the faces of those who were so recently their puppeteers, the new hounds hunt in packs across social media. Twitter is already calling for Rebekah's Law, the right to know when a News International operative is living near you. It is ironic, of course, but wasn't tabloid media always?
As we emerge blinking from the events of the past weeks, reeling from an extraordinary chain of revelations, thinking we are no longer shockable – until the next reveal – trying to pick out what matters from the debris of resignations, backhanders and shaving foam, an industry with an esteemed and even honourable history lies in tatters.
Long before Hackgate, tabloid journalists were surveyed as less popular than second-hand car salesmen. Can we really complain now that we are held in lower esteem even than MPs? Finally, the industry's critics have the ammunition they have been waiting years for. We knew we despised you for something! But watch them give up the bits of the Evil Empire they find a little more conducive to their own tastes. Many of those who have applauded the demise of the News of the World are even now watching their longed-for mortification of Rebekah Brooks and co through Murdoch-owned set-top boxes. Plenty of them buy The Sunday Times and enjoy Sky Broadband.
As pundits push for greater press regulation, don't think the corporate wrongdoers won't be rubbing their hands with glee: the swindlers and the shaggers, the liars and the cheats. Lest we forget, it's not all been about innocent people and hapless celebrity love rats. With the demise of the News of the World there is one less public policeman – however bent – on the block. Unprincipled methods have been frequently employed against unscrupulous people: the News of the World told us about corruption at the heart of Fifa and Pakistani cricket in the same breath it told us about Max Mosley's indiscretions.
Tightening press regulation will suit the bad guys immeasurably well. The ordinary folks – who are also the tabloid's readership – get to lose out twice over. Last time I looked, the broadsheets weren't campaigning heavily on the mundane issues that deeply affect working class people – the holiday rip-offs, the loan-shark thugs, the tawdry parasitical underclass that prey on the poor and elderly.
Apart from kiss and tells, campaigning is one of the things that tabloids do best. Some of the world's best journalism has been tabloid, from the days when John Pilger revealed the cold truth of Cambodia's Killing Fields in the Daily Mirror to the stream of revelations that showed the hypocrisy of John Major's "back to basics" cabinet. Award-winning writing in the tabloids is acknowledged every year at the National Press Awards.
I have been lucky enough to work with some of Fleet Street's finest hacks in more than 15 years working for tabloids. I trained on the Daily Mirror in my early twenties and returned to work for it for a decade in the Noughties.
Like many other tabloid journalists, I have felt deep shame at some of the revelations of the past weeks. Now freelance, I watched the phone hacking scandal take its latest toxic twists from the capital of South Sudan, where I was writing a series on the challenges facing the new country for the Daily Mirror. Some broadsheet readers may be interested to know that there is still room for this kind of journalism in a modern tabloid.
As I watched the News of the World's last hours, it seemed to echo eerily of the banking crisis – and particularly of the moment where the tellers in high street banks lost their jobs while the casino bankers continue business as usual.
Many, many honourable colleagues I know lost their jobs that week because of the actions of a few. Their crimes are no greater than anyone working in news or entertainment. They haven't ruined people's lives. They have as much to do with the corrupt lines of power running between police, papers and politics as the cashier at your local Barclays has to do with the collapse of the world financial system.
Of all the people I know who have lost their jobs, not one would even remotely consider an action as grim, heartless and incomprehensible as intercepting the mobile telephone messages of a murder or terrorism victim.
Meanwhile – breaking news – many tabloid journalists welcome the idea of an ethical broom sweeping through the industry. Not just because they know that the deep cuts facing a declining industry could lead to dangerous corner cutting, but because the illegal methods used by some distort story-getting for all.
A clean-up will put the possibility for scoops back on a level playing field. Old-fashioned legwork is far harder than paying an investigator for information and it will favour those who are willing to work hard and use honest methods. It will also favour those papers that haven't had the cash to pay for lengthy investigations or have an endless cash supply for the bribes allegedly paid by some outlets.
There has been feigned shock that investigators have been used by Fleet Street, but investigation is at the heart of good journalism. Many investigators are legitimate and work for current affairs programmes such as Panorama and the broadsheets as much as tabloid newsdesks.
Meanwhile, one man's journalistic poison is another man's cracking good read. There are arguably papers at least as pernicious than the departed News of the World trundling on with their bile on a daily basis. They just take better care to dress their rotten mutton up as delicate spring lamb.
The original tabloids were "halfpenny papers" sold by Alfred Harmsworth, first Viscount Northcliffe. They were failing newspapers with poor circulations that he bought up, brightened up and sold cheap.
The term "tabloid" was already in circulation, trademarked in 1880 by the drugs company Burroughs, Wellcome and Company for compressed drugs in smaller tablets. By the early 20th century, it had come to mean the new drug of the nation – the addictive short, sharp journalism practiced by the Halfpennies.
Mass readership naturally accrued political power to the tabloid patrons. Long before it was the "Sun Wot [Supposedly] Won It", Northcliffe was the first to use it, generating enough outcry against Prime Minister Herbert Henry Asquith during the Shell Crisis of 1915 to bring down the Liberal government. Arguably, political bias today is barely greater in the red-tops than it is in most of the other papers: it's just more obvious, with colours tied literally to the masthead.
Meanwhile, tabloid readers are consistently underestimated, particularly those of the red-tops. They may have less time to peruse lengthy articles – many work in manual jobs with very small commutes and short breaks, or are at home looking after kids. They want bite-sized information about the world around them, entertainment and silliness to cheer up their day.
Maintaining a benign interest in celebrity (as opposed to say chess, gardening or cryptic crosswords) is not a crime. Television, music, film and sport regularly sell their products on the basis of the personalities behind them. Broadsheets devoted acres of coverage to the death of Jade Goody, dressed up as social commentary. Is Cheryl Cole's hairstyle really less relevant than which wine has had a bloody good year in Burgundy?
Entertainment is the key to tabloid appeal, and is part of the supply and demand compact between editor and reader. Over all, the Stop the War campaign in the early Noughties was one of the modern Daily Mirror's finest hours, but it didn't sell copies.
Stop the War notwithstanding, tabloid readers are both ardent campaigners against injustice and generous donors, often sending envelopes containing an entire pension or their children's Christmas money to people they believe need it more.
Tabloid campaigns I've worked on include adopting a Rwandan village over five years in a development campaign designed by Oxfam, building a school and health centre. They also include campaigning on Darfur, against domestic violence, against the British National Party, on elderly people in care, trade justice, and – currently – against public sector cuts.
At its best, tabloid journalism is an old skill, a trade in the old-fashioned sense that has been traditionally learned through apprenticeship in the newsroom. It is part instinct, part training. Most hacks also possess a naturally deep disdain for authority, establishment and big business. I have seen some reporters squeeze through lavatory windows, lock themselves in broom cupboards, blag their way onto flights and don hilarious disguises. Getting the story is everything – indeed, too much so in some of the circumstances now emerging.
It is a deeply visual medium. Of equal importance to the reporting team are the headline-writers, photographers, designers and sub-editors. But at a good tabloid's heart is an ability to cut through complexity with a sharp eye and convert it into simple argument. It is also critically about fun and humour. It is not for the faint-hearted or the pun-phobic.
The world without tabloids would be paler and far more po-faced. Great tabloid headlines are often first and foremost just great jokes. All from The Sun: Papa Razzi (for the new Pope Ratzinger), How do you solve a problem like Korea? (North Korea's nuclear test), Hawk kestrel manoeuvres in the park (wildlife photography).
But it's more than just a play on words. When I covered the Hutton enquiry into the Iraq War a few years ago, I can remember being awed by the skill of one tabloid court reporter. As each day's evidence would finish, the entire pack of world media would scurry off to their laptops. Meanwhile, an older red-top colleague picked up the court payphone, dialled a freephone number and poured an entire constructed story from his head into the phone from a few scribbled bullet points and went to the pub for the rest of the afternoon. (He would hate this piece. It's way too long, way too fussy, and has not nearly enough jokes.)
I've been thinking a lot this week about an event that happened in the mid-Nineties when I worked at The Independent. A colleague told me he had been upset by an incident of homophobic violence at Canary Wharf in the pub after work. He hadn't done anything about it, but he had deplored it. The same day I saw a man who worked on one of the Trinity Mirror titles – not known for his liberal views – with a black eye and wondered darkly if he'd had anything to do with the incident. Tabloids are not paragons of political correctness even in 2011, but in the dark days of the mid-Nineties, they sometimes verged on the Neanderthal.
"There was a couple of poufs getting battered," the man told me. "I thought, we can't have that going on in this day and age." He had waded in to defend the victims. That's a kind of tabloid allegory for what I mean.
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