“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. It was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness.” There is no better way to describe the appalling dichotomy of the British press today. On one hand you have endless tales of moral bankruptcy at the nations biggest newspaper, on the other, you have the Guardian being heralded for the dogged investigation that slowly pulled back the veil on this story. We have the best and the worst showing their faces at the same time.
The part I find particularly depressing is the descent into this. The slow corruption of Fleet Street’s morals. Today The Sun didn’t lead with the hacking story. Understandable, and I’m not going to criticise them, there’s more than enough people doing that.
What needs highlighting is the story that was run with instead, “Rio’s 10 secret lovers“. If you weren’t going to run with the nefarious activities of your sister paper’s staff, was this really the second biggest story of the day? If anything shows quite how skewed the tabloid newspaper industry’s view of the market, and their role in it, then it is this. What could The Sun have run with? What other story could possibly merit the front page of Britain’s biggest selling daily?
ITV News followed their ‘hackgate’ coverage last night with the story of the Disasters Emergency Committee preparing to launch an appeal to raise funds to help fight “East Africa’s worst drought in decades”. This is no slow news day, even away from the-story-that-shall-not-be-named.
If it is incredibly hard to comprehend quite what was going on with Glenn Mulcaire and his notebook, it is easier to understand the simple editorial decision at work here. The editorial team will look across the stories and decide what makes the best front page, what grabs attention. What has a good picture, what will instantly engage with a reader passing a news-stand? Do they think ‘what is the most important story’?
It wasn’t always like this. The tabloids were not always in the basement. It wasn’t always ‘us and them’ between the tabloids and the broadsheets. They catered for different markets, neither of which necessarily had to be down. To put it simply, the tabloids were writing for a less engaged audience. Stories had to be put in a different manner, with words signposting why this was a story and less comment in the lead articles. They could still run the main stories of the day. The stories themselves didn’t have to be entirely vacuous.
That is the power of the tabloids. People talk of the Westminster bubble and London bias in the media. The Sun and The Mirror are the strongest tools in breaking this disconnect. They have huge readerships across the country, they set the agenda for huge numbers of people. What would be wrong with telling people about a hideous famine happening in Africa? Does the audience not want to hear about it? Do advertisers not want to be associated near it? Does a picture of Emma Watson not sit well next to it?
ITV carried adverts before, during and after their news, they had pieces about celebrities and they certainly had people sat at home watching the programme.
The questions that needs answering then, is when did tabloid editors decide everyone is an idiot?
There was a reason Tony Blair wanted to engage the Sun when he was looking for support, it was the same reason Bob Geldof built support for Live Aid through the tabloids. It is the same reason we all know the name of the editor of the News of the World, and why Rupert Murdoch is vilified by the left. The tabloids have power.
They haven’t always used it for the worst. There was a time when you could celebrate the tabloids’ ability to motivate a population, to move opinion as a force for good.
Today they do nothing more than slowly pull the foundations from society, until we really are all in the basement.