Borrow the Leader
If a Martian were to materialise in a British newsagent, hungry to understand our culture through the popular press, he would be confronted with an array of extremes. Running a protruding eye stalk from the driest broadsheet to the most garish tabloid, he would conclude that we are a race with wildly differing ideas of what makes the news, and how to present it. He may also conclude, as he idly vaporises the shopkeeper and pockets a Daily Sport, that before him is the cheaply typeset microcosm of an intelligent society: different, often violently opposed, viewpoints and agendas sharing the same shelf.
But is this true? The rise of internet news providers and city freesheets has thinned the available audience for print journalism. Although all newspapers can, and invariably do, massage circulation figures into a rousing year on year success story, the diversification of new mediums means that the concept of unwavering loyalty to one newspaper is as outdated as tribal voting. In this varied marketplace, it is increasingly difficult for broadsheets and tabloids to sustain a ring-fenced personality.
When Princess Diana was shepherded to her death by speeding paparazzi, broadsheet writers wrote of tabloid journalism like a modern headmaster; not angry, just disappointed.
Every newspaper has its own voice – a refection of the ideals it feels are most commonly held by its readership. The Sun offers a cocktail of scandal, sport and sexy stunnas. The Mail indicates decency by a liberal scattering of the epithet ‘home-owner’. The Independent considers pictures, even actual news, too vulgar for its front page. But despite such well-rehearsed angles and biases, newspapers do not operate in a vacuum.
Tabloids and broadsheets have always been closer bedfellows than the latter in particular would care to admit. As print journalism evolved in the eighteenth century, making money through the printing and even withholding of gossip was standard practice. William Finey, the second man to edit The Times, was offered money by one Mr Sumbel to desist printing stories about Mrs Sumbel. On being asked if a certain sum would suffice, he replied “Give me a few more, and by St Patrick I will knock out the brains of anyone in our office who dare even whisper your name”.
Though even Ms Wade et al would probably baulk at such a suggestion today, tabloid tactics of more recent times have frequently raised moral, if not legal, questions. When Princess Diana was shepherded to her death by speeding paparazzi, broadsheet writers wrote of tabloid journalism like a modern headmaster; not angry, just disappointed. ‘We warned them’ columnists chided, shaking a collective head, “they took it too far, and now they have to live with the consequences”. And, for a brief time, tabloid editors hung their heads, ran stories on weighty subjects and only carried the better class of photographer’s work.
Reproducing prurient details from a downmarket rival can be excused if the tone indicates smelling salts have had to be deployed to complete the article.
But with this story, as with so many others, the broadsheet agenda was shaped by the actions and responses of the tabloids. The recent libel trial of the News of the World versus preening MSP Tommy Sheridan concerned allegations made in an article no one had particularly cared about. By the end of the trial, entirely through breathless broadsheet reportage, I knew of at least one more way to use an ice cube and a whole lot more about Scottish swingers clubs. The case was of some legal interest, but had the allegations been of tax fiddling coverage would have been far less lingering.
Scandal and gossip have always sold in every strata of newspaper – presentation is the key. Reproducing prurient details from a downmarket rival can be excused if the tone indicates smelling salts have had to be deployed to complete the article. News cannot be pigeonholed between worthy and worthless. So by all means, broadsheets should try to add some second hand fizz by feeding off the redtop agenda, but as print becomes an ever more old-fashioned concept, they will have to commit themselves one way or another, high-brow news or touched-up gossip. Without such a commitment they seriously risk ending their days as no things to no men.