Leading Article: Live by the Mail, die by the Mail

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The Independent Online
TABLOID, n. a newspaper with pages about 30 cm (12 inches) by 40 cm (16 inches), usually characterised by an emphasis on photographs and a concise and often sensational style. The bland dictionary definition only hints at the passions the words can arouse - over the reporting of the Mellor affair in the past weeks, over the coverage of Royal marriages throughout the summer, over the public embarrassments of men as diverse as Paddy Ashdown and Frank Bough. 'Tabloid' is one of those curious words that turned full circle. The old French tablete denoted a 'slab for writing on or inscribing'; later, tablet applied to anything that was compressed, such as a medicine. In 1884, Burroughs, Wellcome and Company registered 'tabloid' as a trade name for a brand of tablets. Writers reclaimed the word at the turn of the century, using it to describe papers that published news in compressed form (the compressed size came later). The manufacturer's attempt to rescue its patented name was overturned in court in 1903.

Only in the past few years has 'tabloid' taken on a new meaning - a term of abuse to succeed 'gutter press' or the American 'yellow journalism'. When David Mellor said on Wednesday night that 'the question is whether the Prime Minister or the tabloid editors determine who should serve in the British Cabinet', he was not suggesting that size of newspaper was any disqualification. Tabloid may now be redefined. For a journalist: a newspaper that I do not work for. For a politician: any newspaper on such days or weeks as it publishes material that embarrasses me. When Mr Mellor blames the tabloids he conveniently ignores the fact that many broadsheet newspapers - and radio and television - not only happily recycled the tabloid stories but in some cases also produced facts and angles of their own. And Mr Mellor's argument that tabloid editors should have no say in Cabinet selection or demotion is a strange one. Thus, the Daily Mail or the Sun may help determine who should govern Britain, and be praised for it. Their editors may be consulted about election strategy and, if they advise well, they may be knighted. But let them, only months after they put all their skills of typography, layout, rhetoric and muckraking behind a Tory election victory, use those same skills to expose a minister's shortcomings and they are accused of behaving, in Mr Mellor's words, 'like a pack of dogs'.

The more pompous politicians and journalists speak of newspapers plumbing new depths. The depths have been plumbed often enough before. In 1924, a newspaper published Ramsay MacDonald's birth certificate, showing that he was illegitimate though he did not, until then, know this himself. Later, after MacDonald entered Downing Street as Labour's first Prime Minister, the Daily Mail disclosed that he had been riding in a chauffeur-driven Daimler provided, along with a gift of shares, by the chairman of McVitie and Price, the biscuit company. Yet newspapers were also, at one time, more obedient. 'What you can't square you squash, what you can't squash you square,' observed Lloyd George, whose amorous lifestyle, common gossip in Westminster and Fleet Street, remained unknown to the wider public.

This is the biggest change of recent years. For politicians such as Mr Mellor there are fewer hiding places. Newspapers - assisted by such developments as the tape-recorder, the bugging device and the long-range camera - have focused more sharply on the rich, the privileged and the famous. Further, broadsheet newspapers and broadcasting organisations have been more willing to follow tabloid stories and even to break such stories themselves. Many of the 'victims' have a symbiotic relationship with the media: they welcome the invitation to the television studio, the telephone call seeking an instant 'quote', the flashing cameras at the opening night of a play or film. They employ public relations officers to maximise favourable exposure. Much of what appears in the press is, in this sense, advertising. Real news - once defined as what somebody somewhere does not want known - breaks only when a public figure is afflicted by a combination of bad judgement and worse luck.

The real lesson of the Mellor affair is that he almost survived. He had sailed through the revelations of his relationship with an actress, just as Paddy Ashdown emerged from his confession of an extra-marital affair with his reputation, if anything, enhanced. This year, it has seemed that for the first time the British public no longer regards exposure of sexual misdemeanour as a bar to high office. Mr Mellor was undone - and here was exceptionally bad luck - by the almost simultaneous revelations about the acceptance of free holidays and free gifts.

Thus newspapers created an image of Mr Mellor quite different from the one he wished to present to the public. No doubt that, in its way, is as distorted as the 'official' image. But a respectable press, of which everyone approves, is a press not worth having; better a pack of dogs than a flock of sheep grazing on PR handouts. As a character in Tom Stoppard's play Night and Day says, 'junk journalism is the evidence of a society that has got at least one thing right, that there should be nobody with the power to dictate where responsible journalism begins'.