The British Press Essay, Research Paper
It is no secret that the ‘tabloid’ or ‘popular’ press has been subject to criticism for many years, and the reasons for it are made far move obvious when it is compared to the broadsheet press. It is, however, only quite recently that the division has become so very clear as it is today – and there are few people in the UK who are unaware of the broadsheet / tabloid division. But, what one may ask, are the differences between the two, and indeed, why do they exist? The easier answer to the latter is that the divisions in the two types of press reflects a division in society of certain groups of people clamouring after different news and alternative ways of presenting this news. It is in almost every aspect of the papers that the incongruities are evident – the topics covered, the language used, the graphics, photography and layout and the framings of different stories. This essay will attempt to outline the pretexts for the type of coverage which has now become typical of the tabloid newspapers and examples of this coverage. In doing so, a consideration of why it is so subject to debate and criticism should emerge. In my own opinion, I think that we cannot claim to know or understand the reasons for the contrast, and it will ever remain ambiguous as to why the divisions have become clear – although many scholars have put forward arguments. However, it seems more simple to suggest reasons for the axiomatic criticisms which today surround journalists and moguls who have helped to create the culture of ‘infotainment’, ‘chequebook journalism’ and sensationalism. Perhaps the animadversions have grown from the popular press’ lack of seriousness, the deficiency of neutral, thorough and pointful coverage of what are deemed ‘important’ issues. Often, tabloid press coverage can, by its omission of facts and sensationalistic reporting, be misleading to the reader – a factor which seems to warrant criticism. This was evident in the Sun’s coverage of the 20 April 1999 events in Serbia when a civilian convoy was gunned down by Nato troops – this is a fact and was admitted by Nato before the publication of the article: SERB MONSTERS SHOT REFUGEES THEN BLAMED US
“A Nato commander insisted yesterday that Serbs slaughtered Kosovan refugees in a convoy massacre blamed on the Alliance… The officer said that the evidence proved that Yugoslav tyrant Slobodan Milosevic LIED about the carnage…” From the headline, the reader automatically would assume, having perhaps heard or read the previous day’s news, and after five days of Nato’s denials, that it had been confirmed that the convoys were indeed attacked primarily by Serbian troops. Whereas a sub-headline on the front page of the Daily Telegraph of the same day confirms the NATO admission “We hit both convoys”. This clearly and unequivocally gives the facts in one headline whereas one has to read and dismantle the article The Sun’s political editor Trevor Kavanagh presents. The Sun’s piece could easily be criticised as a form of unadulterated propaganda. The actual release of the admission from General Leaf came at three o’clock on the 19th April, and as the Daily Telegraph reports, he reported to a press conference the details of the mistake, wherein NATO confirmed the two air raids on two separate convoys, believed by the pilots to be military targets. This example shows in one article how the tabloid press can be manipulative, ‘patriotic’, racist and misleading, which are indeed common aspects of “gutter press” reporting. Perhaps the layout of the newspapers categorised as ‘popular’ is what typifies them more than any other factor. Due to the fact that the popular press label encompasses papers from the Daily Sport to the Express, content, although often similar, cannot be a specific pigeon-holer. The tabloid press has predictable content. As well as news items of the day – the big political word of the day (e.g. an update on the London Mayor situation), disasters (e.g. the 1984 Ethiopian famine) newsworthy celebrity events (e.g. the death of Princess Diana) and the day’s sports news – the tabloid press more often than not has a big piece(s) concerning what have become tongue-in-cheek stereotypes: sex, violence, public figures in compromising positions or merely going about their everyday lives, and often a paper ‘campaign’. Often these topics take precedent, or are given as much importance as, for example, the Mozambique floods or a stock market crash, if these items have no particular ’sensation’ value. Take for example, The Sun’s front page of April 4th 2000 (see attachments). On a day when the broadsheets and the television news were concentrating on Ken Livingstone’s controversy over the inquiry into breaking company law and its impact on his role as London Mayor and the other big story, the computer giant Microsoft being taken to court, its shares falling massively and the consequential impact on today’s millions of PC users, the Sun’s front page shouted “OWN A DONOR”. Far from being an empathetic piece on the hundreds of people who are saved by organ donation, or a concentration on the waiting list, the article was concerned mainly with being proud of its paper … “Today The Sun makes newspaper history with the launch of a groundbreaking health campaign”. This pushing of the papers corporate identity and its ’services to society’ is a common trait of tabloids. Very regularly the tabloid press turn important issues into commercial ventures and ‘blow their own trumpets’. The other front page story was headlined “SEX CHAIN SNAPS UP KNICKERBOX” and typically added a full length picture of a model in her underwear – an attention grabber, granted, but is the story one which warrants taking precedent over important political news? So, why do the tabloids sell as much as they do – The Sun is Britain’s biggest selling newspaper with a readership of over 10 million; yet it still is bombarded with criticism. Perhaps those who criticise the “gutter press” are merely unimpressed with the content – but many people clearly are impressed! Tabloids often use sexual elements or intimate and ‘gory’ details to make a story more interesting to a reader. Having witnessed a shift in the emphasises of the tabloids, the readerships have come to expect and want more stories which are viewed as being sensationalistic. By their use of such detail and ‘punchy’ language, the empathy and genuine human-interest of often appalling stories of crime and violence is lost. Soothhill and Walby1 studied the abundance and structural reporting of ’sex crime in the news’ and one of their main points is that the fact that although “there is a complicated relationship between what is printed in the newspapers and what people come to believe” and that people do not “passively and uncritically absorb all that they read”, the reportage of sex crimes does have a baring on what people believe and aids in misconception and sensationalism as regards serious issues. “…the nature of reporting obscures the real nature of sexual violence: it underestimates the extent of these crimes, and reports on unusual cases, for instance those in which the rapist is a stranger and serial rapists” (pp. 157) The 24 January 2000 issue of The Mirror reports a story headlined “RAID VICTIM ELAYNE, 26, DROPS DEAD OF SHOCK”. The story concerns the death of a woman after discovering her home had been broken into. This is obviously a lamentable incident, but the writer (Ian Key) uses language such as “she just collapsed on the floor” and quotes a friend of the deceased saying “I wish they had got in because I would have had a go at sorting them out!”; these examples are mere instances of the writers insensitivity towards the plight of the victim and her relatives. The author seems to ‘rub in’ the fact that the thief did not even enter the house and so the shock was not so great as to warrant a death, but he doesn’t do this in the sense of ‘what a needless death’, the references are almost mockingly ironic. The media industry is one of the largest and fastest growing industries in the world. A massive proportion of Britain’s population own and watch a television a regular basis. With the ‘globalization’ of television and the vast array of channels, news and entertainment are just the press of a button away for most people. With access to the news always at their fingertips, are people beginning to rely on the popular press for something different or more than just ‘news’? Has the popular press developed its sensationalistic paparazzi attitudes because there is a public desire for it? It is human nature to ‘gossip’ and perhaps that is what the tabloid provides. The following quote was taken from a web site bulletin board devoted to commentary on the tabloid press from ordinary people: “The truth is that the tabloid press is a product of our society. But not a passive one. It is a consumable that consumes our basest fears and twists them for its circulation (all in the public interest, of course). The tabloid press is the bastard offspring of Britain’s lowest nature and it finds plenty to feed on in our [the public's] half-baked fears.”2
This opinion and many similar to it are based on themes which are increasingly noticeable in the tabloids – they include xenophobia, ageism, sexism and classism. This is not to say that the broadsheet press do not have elements of bias – there are few papers that take no political stance however subtle. Peter Leigh has picked up upon the discrimination that papers such as The Sun and The Star push as being in the national interest. This is particularly the case as regards sport and national teams. The 30 March 2000 issue of The Sun covered a story about the U-21 European Football Championship Finals, involving Yugoslavia and England. The headline (see attached) reads “WILKO KIDS TAME THE YUGO THUGS” – the piece refers to the racial abuse of Emile Heskey, an England player. The journalist (Brian Woolnough) begins his article with this lead:
“Emile Heskey got a taste of things to come when he was punched, kicked and spat at by a bunch of dirty Yugoslavs”
There is an obvious element of racism in the article which is evident from this quote, but what is odd and inconsistent is that the journalist goes on to claim that “Heskey [who is black], 22, was the player targeted for special treatment from Yugoslavia – and FA officials even had to step in to halt the disgusting racial abuse and monkey noises hurled at him by opposing fans”. When authors in the tabloids are so clearly hypocritical when using phrases like “dirty Yugoslavians”, “Yugo thugs”, “the odious Milan Obradonic” yet shouting the cause of racism for English people (or English players), how can they avoid criticism?
With this kind of attitude put forward by a paper that has over 10 million readers, is it any wonder that football ‘fans’ are encouraged to fight and be misguidely ‘patriotic’. Tabloids actively encouraged the ‘Hun-bashing’ attitude of the England fears during the 1998 World Cup – is this what society really needs?
The image of women in the tabloids is also a bone of contention, and has been for the past three decades. The typical image of a women in a tabloid is ‘curvy’, slim, pretty and young, and more often than not semi-nude. “Page 3″ began in the 1970s with “a ‘half-dressed Swedish charmer’ as well as a news story about a man described as a ‘walking lust automat’” 3(Williams, p. 221). These presentations of an ideal women is highly criticised by feminist commentators who argue that the tabloids are perpetuating this idea of a perfect women, which has such a wide reaching influence that ordinary women are expected, and thus to, look the same. Another criticism which has gained momentum in recent years is the increasing pursuit of celebrity news. The death of Princess Diana is the one event which ricocheted throughout the world. The criticism that the paparazzi “hounded the Princess to death” is one held up by many critics and has led to calls for stringent press regulation. The organisation CATT4 have web sites which claim that “the attitude of most people is that because someone is in the public eye, they should expect to have their lives put under a microscope … freedom of speech and the freedom of the press [should not] invade someone’s privacy in the practice of these two rights” CATT claim that they are not “only fighting the paparazzi, but the whole tabloid empire”. It is true that the tabloids do perpetuate the invasion of privacy attributed to the paparazzi. The public, according to CATT, are the only people with the “power to stop it”. In Newspapers and the Press5, Curran attempts to describe what has shaped and influenced the press as it stands today. According to Curran in a liberal society like Britain, the press is “an independent institution that empowers the people” and it became so through these steps: the agency of the state, the adjuntiveness of the political parties and the massive and unparalleled rise of commercialisation. In response the press, and particularly the tabloids became market led products run by pragmatists. At least, this is the theory – that the content of the press is audience led, but this is indeed a questionable theory – indeed how much call is there for a front page full-size photograph of Elton John with his face in Elizabeth Hurley’s chest (The Sun, Thursday 30 March 2000). Curran claims that media professionals are not in touch with what their audiences actually want, but have, and have put into practice strong views what their readerships need. Gans6 argues that the news and media organisations are one of the most powerful features of today’s society, Curran quotes him, “while big business corporations are ‘nominal managers’, news organisations and journalists are the actual ones”. But although the elongated hierarchies of news organisations (The Mirror Group, IPC, Reuters etc.) have become very powerful, there are still strong elements of individual autonomy in the tabloid press. On particular stories, journalists are rarely given a specific line to take (with the exception of intrinsic lines – a Guardian reporter could not feasibly take a fascist line) and are rarely told to conceal any information on their story. Gans’ sweeping statements have their flaws – journalists are on a tighter rein than they actually imagine often; they may be sub edited or unpublished so it is evident that the hierarchical infrastructures of the media organisations are the controllers of what we read. Is this fair though? Should massive business corporations be in charge of what the people of Britain read, or should there be correct implementations and measures to ensure that the public are presented with what they want to be?
A strand of the media hypothesis ‘liberal optimism’ claims that the press is reflective of “the cultural values of a socially harmonious society” and the assumptions and premises in the press are framed by the common culture of society. What Curran call the liberal synthesis is that the “News media can be seen as being shaped by consumer demand, the professional concerns of media workers, pluralistic source networks, and the collective values of society”. This seems slightly optimistic as there are few procedures which show what the readership actually want.
In conclusion, it’s clear that tabloid newspaper do warrant criticism. But what is also clear is that the success of the tabloids is dependent on the entertainment value they provide to the public – and this is why they are so successful. The sensation and excitement people find in the tabloids and the gossip they include is a recipe for success in what seems like a society craving for more and more information. It seems that because in today’s highly advanced (technologically) society, we have as much information available as is imaginable, and so to remain profitable, papers (particularly tabloids) have to find different information to present. It seems like the tabloids have developed an enviable format however, because papers like the Guardian and The Times have taken on a far more ‘tabloid’ appearance than they ever had before, with colour and panels showing the highlights of the papers contents inside – Williams calls this “bright and breezy – easy on the eye”7. This is a growing model known as ‘tabloidisation’. The question still remains about how far the tabloids should go in the pursuit and presentation of this information, but it is clear that although there are many critics, there are more supporters.