The myth of the feral tabloid reader
Why the political class loves to peddle stories about the tabloids’ evil grip on the masses’ minds.
‘The sun came through the window carrying street noises on its beams, a Sunday morning clash of milk bottles from milkmen on their rounds, newspaper boys shouting to one another as they clattered along the pavement and pushed folded newspapers into letter boxes, each bearing crossword puzzles, sports news and forecasts and interesting scandal that would be struggled through with a curious and salacious indolence over plates of bacon and tomatoes and mugs of strong sweet tea.’
These lines are taken from Alan Sillitoe’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, a tale of working-class anti-heroism written in the 1950s. This was the era when the now defunct News of the World was at its peak. In fact, its mix of sex, crime and sensation, rounded off with the sport, was so popular that around eight million copies were being sold every Sunday. But what’s interesting about the Sillitoe excerpt is the snapshot of how the Sunday redtop, later revealed in the novel to be the News of the World, was consumed. The scandal was ‘interesting’, not fascinating; the paper’s contents were experienced lazily, ‘with… indolence’, not devoured eagerly with, say, ‘feverish intensity’. Yes, the character’s curiosity was piqued by the indecency and irreverence of the stories, but that is all. Reading the paper was a part of a Sunday morning, not its centre.
Writing a few years earlier, George Orwell, Eton-educated scourge of the Daily Mail and the New Statesman alike, painted a similarly relaxed portrait of the News of the World’s consumption. It was quoted in the last-ever edition of the News of the World, published on Sunday: ‘It is a Sunday afternoon, preferably before the war. The wife is already asleep in the armchair and the children have been sent out for a nice long walk. You put your feet up on the sofa, settle your spectacles on your nose and open the News of the World.’ Filled with scandal and sport, the News of the World was certainly entertaining, hence its incredible popularity, but that was all. It was not to be taken that seriously.
This is one of the paradoxes of the current response to the phone-hacking furore. At a time when the fortunes of Britain’s tabloids have long since dwindled from their mid-twentieth century high – the News of the World had been selling just over 2.5million copies a week in recent years – they are accorded far more influence over their readers than they were when they were a significant part of a genuine mass culture. The sanguine attitude of Orwell or Sillitoe to what really was a majority pastime is no more. The tabloid, the redtop, is no longer seen simply as an entertaining, salacious mix of sport, sex and crime, read on a Sunday and taken with as many pinches of salt as there are in your average fry-up; it is now treated as a serious power, so influential, in fact, that many now routinely speak of a ‘tabloid culture’, a ‘feral’, tabloid-fostered miasma that has engulfed media and readers alike.
So prime minister David Cameron, in his press conference on Friday following News International’s announcement of the closure of the News of the World, talked of the need to address the ‘culture, the practices and the ethics of the British press’. Then, hot on Cameron’s slightly sullied heels, the BBC’s Mark Easton chastised the ‘uncompromising, aggressive, no-holds-barred culture’ prevalent among the story-seeking, profit-driven tabloids. And again, Sunday’s Observer attacked the ‘culture’ of a news organisation in which ‘a particularly ruthless and cold-hearted method of harvesting copy’ flourished.
The key elements of this attack, as the Independent on Sunday put it, on an ‘out-of-control’ segment of the press, blinded to their own moral failings by a culture of anything goes, are not new. The political class has been creating this voracious, unscrupulous red-topped spectre for some time now. For instance, back in the summer of 2007, Tony Blair, on the brink of letting Gordon Brown ascend to the prime ministerial throne, felt demob happy enough to launch what now reads like an eerily familiar attack on the press. Driven by a desperate, competitive search for stories, and of course readers, the press was ‘like a feral beast, just tearing people and reputations to bits’, said Blair. With the accuracy of stories coming a poor second to their potential impact, the press was ‘impelled towards sensation above all else’, he said.
In 2009, with the MPs’ expenses snoozefest still ringing loud and tediously in politicians’ ears, ex-Labour MP Chris Mullin launched a widely republished attack on ‘ignoramus’ journalists and their mean’n’nasty pursuit of expensive trivia: ‘The sad truth is that for much of our media (and not just the tabloids) political journalism has become a form of warfare in which anything goes.’ The ‘tabloid virus’, he surmised, having studied Jeremy Paxman’s arch eyebrows and John Humphrys’ abrupt sneer, had even infected broadcast media, too.
This was ‘tabloid culture’. Driven solely by a search for profits, tabloid culture knows no morality. Scruples are an impediment; concerns for the feelings of Max Mosley, Gordon Brown or, indeed, Milly Dowler’s family are to be disregarded. All that matters is the story. Such, supposedly, is the relentless, merciless churn of tabloid culture.
Yet these long-term attacks on the ‘feral’, ‘out-of-control’, ‘anything goes’ tabloid culture are not only aimed at the tabloid press – they are also aimed at those who read it. So when Blair began stalking the feral beast in 2007, he spoke of ‘viewers or readers’ being duped by an all-encompassing media that offers ‘no objective yardstick [for viewers or readers] to measure what they are being told’. While Blair was at least circumspect when it came to attacking the feral consumers of tabloid culture, others have been less so. Mullin complained that because ‘tabloid culture thrives on ignorance’, it has become impossible to hold a rational discussion about ‘immigration’ or ‘sex offenders’ without the risk of ‘triggering hysteria’. It is an interesting verb, ‘to trigger’. It suggests that readers have about as much choice over how they react to a story as a bullet does over whether to leave the gun chamber. ‘Remember the mob of shaven-headed tabloid readers’, Mullin concludes rhetorically, ‘who marched on the home of a paediatrician because they didn’t know the difference between a paediatrician and a paedophile?’.
How can we forget them? Every time some commentator or politician wants to highlight the confluence of evil tabloid intent with gullible tabloid actors, this apocryphal tale of the paediatrician-mistaken-for-a-paedophile is trotted out. Even though, as spiked editor Brendan O’Neill reported for BBC News in 2006, there never was any ‘shaven-headed mob’ involved in this massively overblown story. The ‘tabloid culture’ narrative, peddled for so long by politicians and broadsheet liberals, means that if the persecuted paediatrician didn’t exist, they’d have to invent it. Which, of course, they unwittingly did; the ‘tabloid culture’ narrative demanded it. There’s almost a will to believe in some elite quarters that a vicious tabloid culture has cultivated a feral readership. As the Independent on Sunday’s editor-at-large Janet Street-Porter put it over the weekend: ‘To be honest, wasn’t buying the News of the World a bit like snacking on crack? You’re soon hooked and, even if you claim it’s just for entertainment, your attitudes get coarsened in the process of reading the stuff.’
The bilious vehemence with which so-called tabloid culture is currently invoked, as if it poses a genuine threat to society, makes the paradox of the tabloids’ waning popularity all the more puzzling. Think back to the 1950s, to the Sillitoe and Orwell quotes. A third of the adult population was regularly enjoying the News of the World’s diet of sex scandals and sport. Yet not only was this mass of readers not moved to violent actions by a sensational tale – there was also little fear of such an effects-theory scenario. Instead it was assumed that people were capable of taking the redtops’ offerings for what they were.
And that is what has changed. It is now assumed by too many in Westminster and in the supposedly respectable media that people are no longer capable of taking the tabloids with a pinch of salt. Bang, they think, a sensational story will trigger an instinctive, hysterical response. Feral readers see, feral readers do. The image of Sillitoe’s Arthur Seaton struggling through the News of the World with ‘a curious and salacious indolence’ while eating breakfast would be virtually impossible for someone like Mullin to imagine. Seaton reimagined for today would be up and out of his seat, pitchfork in hand, head shaved, before you could say ‘paediatrician’.
The change in perception of the tabloid reader is a result of the sheer isolation of the political class. During the 1950s, both the Labour and Conservative parties, as multi-million member organisations, had significant social roots, the one largely among the working classes, the other among denizens of the church and countryside – the Church of England was, after all, known as the Conservative Party at prayer. Any rumoured tabloid influence paled before the actual influence of political groupings. And it is the withering of such mass, social roots that is key here. In their absence, contemporary politicians have come to approach the public as something foreign, alien, and more than a little irrational. They no longer know us as supporters, let alone as ‘people like them’. Rather, they have come to think they can know us by our choice of newspaper, by our media consumption. Hence this weird, elite phantasm known as ‘tabloid culture’.
Too long obsessed with knowing us through the media we consume, the political class, from Blair to Cameron, has overestimated the influence of the media and, more importantly, underestimated the subtlety of our consumption. This is why there is nothing indigenous about so-called tabloid culture. Rather, it is the conceptual product of a political class that is so far removed from those it is forced periodically to engage with that it imagines us to be something that we are not: gullible and incapable of reading the News of the World as George Orwell once did. Reclined, relaxed, and wholly without feral urges. We may read a redtop on a Sunday, but that does not mean we take it as gospel.
Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.