A conversation last week with Michael McCarthy, Environment Editor of The Independent and i, confirmed a feeling I have had for some time about our tabloid newspapers.
It also put the ongoing traumas of The Sun and the launch of its uninspiring Sunday edition in an unflattering context. Mike, who is now the most respected and influential environmental journalist in Britain, briefly transported me to the days when he joined the Daily Mirror. It was 1972.
"We had a sense of mission: to raise people's horizons," Mike said. "The point of the Mirror then was to show those at the bottom of the pile how far they could rise up, not show those at the top how low they could fall." Barely a decade earlier, the great Hugh Cudlipp, a hero of mine and an old friend of this column, declared on the masthead of the Mirror he edited: "Forward with the People". His paper had political purpose, wanting to speed up history for the benefit of the masses.
Nostalgia is a deceptive thing. Every Golden Age, on closer inspection, is tinged with rust. But in the past year I have made a serious study of Britain's tabloid heritage and it seems to me Mike is right.
Tabloids, which had once been the tribune of the poor, no longer seek to raise their horizons. Instead, they are among the more lowering aspects of our culture and their decline can be traced back to Rupert Murdoch's purchase of the commercially flagging Sun in 1969.
This Sunday's Sun was a pale imitation of the News of the World. And the last News of the World was a pale imitation of its former self. In the 1960s, say, the paper had around 30 stories on the front page; by the end, a front page usually had under 30 words there. Decades ago the paper would cover stories that had a real impact on people's lives; this weekend's paper led with the traumas of Amanda Holden.
The journalist Charles Moore got it right. Christians are taught to hate the sin but love the sinner. Britain's tabloids now invert that sermon. They love the sin but hate the sinner. In other words, they are vehicles of misanthropy.
Maddeningly, anyone who criticises tabloids is derided as an enemy of the poor or a celebrity brown-noser.
This is patronising nonsense.
Naturally, as a journalist and lover of newspapers, I mourn their passing and applaud their invention. But if you care for our culture, let alone for our poor, compare today's tabloids with those of yore.
It will convince you that something dreadful has been gained and something precious lost.
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