Shock horror, the popular tabloids have offended public taste and contravened what passes as journalistic integrity. So far, so unremarkable. Events at the News of the World may be the grossest in recent times, prying as irreverently as irrelevantly into the lives of grieving families but they are far from unique in the back pages of journalism, merely the latest technological twist of a tale.
Colourful and disreputable characters leading the pursuit of the unsavoury for a prurient readership is nothing new in the press. The Morning Post from 1772 under the leadership of Rev. Henry Bate also known as ‘The Fighting Parson’ developed scandal journalism by a means of proactive entrepreneurialism: stories would be tested against their subjects and published or suppressed depending on whether the subject was pleased with the flattery or shamed by the accusation contained in the proposed revelations. ‘Puffs’, ‘correction fees’ and ‘suppression fees’ became a common supplement to other streams of revenue for newspapers.
However, the strange connection between the scandalous and the political starts in earnest with the unstamped newspapers of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. These had a very ambiguous history. Part political protest, part economic opportunism, they combined a range of fare not often found in the mainstream of their day. Not paying their taxes meant that their location outside the legally acceptable allowed them to test public taste – and the market for it – in all sorts of areas. In terms of sexual content, one could make the claim that they belonged to a tradition emanating largely from the French Revolution in which the tales of the sexual antics of both aristocrats and clergy could be used as fuel to fire the anger of the populace at the hypocrisies of those in high places. Does this sound familiar?
The Queen Caroline affair of 1820 filled all the metropolitan newspapers including the eminently respectable Times with details of scandalous and salacious behaviour between the woman who had become Queen Consort and Bartolomeo Pergami her secretary on her European travels.
Reform of the voting laws in 1832 began a process which included more public involvement in the politics and the public life of the country and the subsequent gradual lifting of taxes on newspapers, newsprint and advertising meant that a new generation of newspapers could begin to test the contours of a popular market for the first time. Inevitably they turned to the tried and tested formula of sensation and outrage targeted towards the lower classes and this involved a fair amount of revelation of the bad behaviour of the upper classes and a variable bit of class consciousness thrown in for reader solidarity. Cleave’s Weekly Police Gazette from 1836 was the first to commercially combine sex, sensation, murder and moral outrage for a wide working class readership which would also appreciate a residue of radical political judgement. Popular started to go mass market for the first time with the launch of Sunday newspapers which mined this seam of taste including Lloyds Illustrated London Newspaper in 1842 and of course, the publication of the moment, the News of the World in 1843.
The Daily Telegraph jumped on board the abolition of tax on newspapers in 1855 and because of its drive to increase circulation by, among other things, a greater concentration on matters of the criminal courts it was being branded a purveyor of ‘Newspaper Sewage’ by 1868 in the Saturday Review.
The Pall Mall Gazette’s campaigning journalism reached its apogee in 1885 with its sensational investigation of the world of child prostitution in the East End of London, ‘The Maiden Tribune of Babylon’. Yet it ultimately failed economically because the opprobrium attached to an evening newspaper targeted at domestic consumption meant that advertisers were reluctant to tarnish the prestige of their products by association with a paper which had dealt so explicitly with sex.
In 1896 the newly minted Daily Mail which was to show the way for mass popular journalism of the next century, included court reporting which stressed its emphasis ‘ON THE SEAMY SIDE’ on its third page
By 1926 the coverage of the dirty washing of the upper classes in the divorce courts had become such popular material, especially for left leaning newspapers like the Daily Herald, with a vested interest in exposing the failures of bourgeois respectability that a law was passed constraining the detail and the timing of such accounts.
We would do well to remember that since the great Calcutt debate in 1990 about standards in the British press, economic and technological changes have amplified the commercial pressures on newspapers of all shapes and sizes, directing them towards territory once reserved for the popular tabloids. What we are now witnessing in the News of the World phone hacking scandal is the latest episode in official handwringing when the wrong sort of ‘ordinary people’ get drawn into what have become pretty routine working practices. It seems that some pretty reprehensible practices are tolerated if the victims are celebrities; when their attention fastens onto people who enjoy public sympathy such as the families of dead soldiers or murdered schoolgirls, patience can run thin.
But what about the politics, one might ask? In 1649 John Crouch was publishing his weekly Man in the Moon, a title which might yet prove appealing to News International as it searches for alternative revenue at the weekend. This publication promised revelations gathered during its nocturnal perambulations, exposing ‘knavery’ of all sorts by politicians. Its point, however, was that Crouch, a Royalist, was pleased to offer such scandal and intrusion to criticise the parliamentary party’s peccadilloes. When we have such coverage it is always in lieu of something else. Five years later he had perfected this genre into the Mercurius Fumiogus which claimed its focus henceforth:
Of Country Newes I now must Prate,
and something rare and new,
I meddle not with Church nor State
but News more pleasing you.
Meanwhile the Sun and the Daily Mirror will soon find themselves in the courts once again for invading the good name of Jeffries when as suspect in the Joanna Yeates murder in January 2011. For all the shrill claims from tabloid journalists that they have to work on the margins of acceptable behaviour in order to discover misdeeds by the politically and economically powerful, empirical evidence does not back this up. Nick Davies’s book, Flat Earth News, based on academic work from Cardiff University, concludes that more and more journalism is produced with less and less truly investigative work, beyond the checking of facts. When they are uncovering stories about those in the public eye, the focus has tended to focus on the sexual and personal financial affairs of these people. Where were the investigative exposés of the wrecked international banking system? Where were the reports on the inside story at the News of the World? Where has the BBC been in all this; reporting what was happening in the papers, cowed by the twin pressures of Government and the Murdoch Empire. Why even concentrate on the wrongs of the popular tabloids when our entire news media system is driven more and more to concentrate on less and less of significance to public life; real public interest? If there is a crisis, history indicates that it lies less in the excesses of an often excessive communicative practice and more in the failures of that practice to consistently deliver what it promises. Public Watchdog anyone?
Professor of Journalism History
University of Sheffield