Jul 20 2011

Why does Britain have such a popular, political and aggressive tabloid press?

Only in the UK?

During the phonehacking scandal I have been doing a lot of international media interviews. That’s because the LSE is a very global brand and, well, I do run an international media think-tank. One question that keeps being repeated in various delightful accents goes along the lines of “Why do you English have such a horrible down-market tabloid media that hacks phones and preaches (nasty right-wing) politics along with lurid sex and celebrity sleeze?”

[Click here for a longer version of this in an article for the Guardian]

I patiently point out the virtues of a robust, unregulated press that is tough enough to take on those in power. I say that the tabloids are also read by expensively educated folk who hold down important jobs and pay high rates of tax. I emphasise how competitive our newspaper market is and that the tabloids are very popular, so they must be doing something right.

“But why are tabloids of this sort so rare elsewhere?” my International inquisitors ask. “We have nothing as horrible as your filthy tabloids”, they say. I am not entirely sure what the right answer is, are you?

I usually talk about the particularly long history in the UK of mass market titles aimed originally at women (The Mail) and ‘ordinary people’ which then created a demand for drama and sensation in daily doses. I suggest that the aggressive nature of our two-party, adversarial politics might foster the red top rudeness. Our Anglo-Saxon prurience whets a cultural appetite for naked flesh and the intrusion of privacy.

When I asked this question on Twitter, only a few people suggested that we are not alone. @sophyridge pointed out that the US does have the National Enquirer, for example, but generally people accepted that we are the odd one out in combining the sensationalism, politics and real investigative reporting in a small newspaper format.

@GabrielMilland said it was the railways that created a national segmented market in the UK, while @amonck said it was our history of politically-driven proprietors. @Andrew_chadwick said it all started with the Glorious Revolution and Jonathan Swift.

@chiggi referred me to a section of a philosopher’s autobiography that ‘blames’ the Mail for creating tabloids and thus initiating an age of political unreason in Britain.

Cultural explanations included @fullydave: “I think it’s about our schizo relationship w privacy, island nation, keen on our own, obsessed with others” and @stgrasp  “inbreeding over centuries of isolation created a drama gene… then the Romans came along…”.

So the truth is that we are a strange little group of islands with a peculiar past and a unique national character. And apart from the Island bit, that is true of most countries. In my experience, even in a highly globalised media world, news cultures are very different according to national circumstances.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that other countries don’t have tabloid journalism. It’s just that they put it on different platforms and in varying styles. @vctrjmnz from Spain said that a history of working class illiteracy in that country meant that more popular journalism goes on TV rather than papers, for example.

So in all the soul-searching for a way of improving our press I think we do have to be careful about making international comparisons. I spent much of my journalistic life travelling to places like Sweden and the US to show how they do certain things better than us. But while that might be true with journalism in some cases, I think it is going to be very difficult to follow those virtuous examples without understanding our own tabloid – and broadsheet history, culture and circumstances.

Click on this picture for fuller version of this blog post as a Guardian article


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22 Responses to Why does Britain have such a popular, political and aggressive tabloid press?

  1. Iain Overton says:

    I think the comment about Jonathan Swift and the Glorious Revolution is valid. But also this: why did Britain not have its own French Revolution? Muck-racking via our tabloids is a way of purging the national bile. The continentals don’t do it in the press like this really. Instead they let Gallic passion overrides and take to the barricades (or at least block the ports with lorries).

    The other factor might be levels of literacy. Everybody on the London Tube reads. The same is not true in Paris, Berlin, Tokyo, Singapore, Hong Kong… I am not saying others are more illiterate. I am saying that the daily impulse to read a paper has been passed down from parent to child since the Victorians introduced the Daily en masse. And so there is the market for tabloids.

    But this is not all. Other factors include a combination of the British impulse to satire and to knock down those on the up, the seething mass of resentment that comes from being a grey little Island, the fact we are Protestants and not Catholics in our prurience, the rigid class structure that tells people to know their place and get them to hate everyone not in that place, the fact that we blood-let in print not on pavements and the fact that father was given time to read the News of the Screws on Sunday after the roast (and that’s how it is and that’s how it will remain).

    In short. Tradition and bad upbringings/food/weather/sex. That’s what makes us bitter and tabloid twisted.

    • brightlight says:

      I agree about the reading Ian, I live in Spain and we don’t see a lot of second hand book stalls in the markets and shops as can be found in the UK, nor are there a great number of libraries but Spanish do read a lot of papers about Sport or magazines about the wealthy and their gossip. I think that the Fascist Franco regime and disappointment with the present democracy (they don’t seem to think they are part of the democracy until the recent protests in Madrid by the younger generation mainly) has stopped them reading many papers about politics. There are three most read, which are the “El Pais” which is said to be Socialist, though I don’t agree, and “El Mundo” which is more to the right and a further to the left paper which I don’t remember the name of. However, we do get a lot of political news on T.V. and radio and that seems to get more attention. One thing I also notice here is that we do not get so much “censoring” of certain types of news as we did when I lived in the UK. So little came out about Ireland when I lived there and I couldn’t even find books about Irish history in the libraries and had to read that when I moved abroad. That was when I learnt the truth about our “wonderful” cruel British Empire and I became more realistic about how we treated other countries in the past, and still do today. How many people think we are greatly to blame for the present problems in the Arab countries due to changing borders etc?

  2. Charlie Beckett says:

    This comment via email from French journalist Cyrille Vanlerberghe @cyrillevan
    It’s a very interesting post you have written and I didn’t know the origins of the British popular press. I also quite like to first comment you got, about the lack of French revolution in Britain!
    We now also have a trash press in France, but it’s mostly weekly magazines (France dimanche, Voici…) but they don’t have any tradition of investigative journalism, which is as you reminded me is a very important aspect of tabloids.
    But in the past, and since the origins of the French press in the late 18th century, French newspapers always liked the idea of being quite high quality, even for popular titles like France Soir, able to give enlightened information and comments to the readers. It’s in a way a quite Parisianist way of looking at information, where the highest possible status in society is that of “intellectuel”, the thinker.
    I think this high brow and very parisian vision of journalism may also be one of the reasons why french dailies have so few readers ! ;-)

  3. Guido Fawkes says:

    There seems to be a lot of naked women in German tabloids. In Thailand the papers show pictures of splattered brains from car crashes and shootings. On the continent the papers are actually sometimes formally party affiliated as well as informally. At least the Murdoch press switches parties now and then.

    We have a boisterous tabloid culture and it is to be celebrated, the phone hacking of victims and “civilians” was a shameful episode.

  4. I think you have hit the nail on the head with this blog post. What makes the British tabloid experience unique is a question that, unfortunately, is almost unanswerable. It reminds me of friends coming to visit in the UK and asking me to explain why the humor present in the “Carry On” films and programs such as “Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em” is considered “funny” (I won’t even try to explain them in this short post). For these I would argue part camp, part ironic self-reflexivity, part xenophobia, part post-colonial angst, part arrogance and part public school wit. I would throw a number of these factors into the tabloid debate as well, in addition to a schizoid relationship with both the market and Europe (especially post-Thatcher), and an industrial nation that at one and the same time loves and hates the people who built it. Oh, and don’t forget how the The Blitz and the romanticization of World War II still permeate a lot of public discourse in the UK. Take your pick. See how hard it is? I’m just rambling.

  5. Mario Tedeschini Lalli says:

    In Italy a couple of serious efforts to publish a tabloidy daily newspaper in the last 25 years just fizzled out in a few months. There are a couple of reasons. Like in Spain, popular weekly magazines have traditionally filled that news hole. In the 50s and the 60s they were mostly taken with royalty (the Grimaldis of Monaco, princess Soraya of Iran…) or pseudo royalty (the Agnelli family of FIAT lore…), some movie personalities and feel-good stories. More recently, bare breasted celebrities on the covers, and different paparazzi-driven stories manage to feed a relatively large stable of juicy titles — AND we have what you would call the quality papers doing their fair share. All Italian newspapers are, in fact, much more personality driven than their equivalents elsewhere, and more prone to gossipy news. Italian dailies have become in the last 30 years a mix of high and low brow, somehow occupying all possible market segments.

    • Davide Morisi says:

      I totally agree on the above explanation about Italian newspapers. Instead of having a clear distinction between tabloids and broadsheets, we have gossip magazines, on the one hand, and “catch-all dailies”, on the other hand.

  6. Mario Tedeschini Lalli says:

    …and of course (I forgot to mention, because it is a given in our context), we have a very politicized press — so much so, that even less politically oriented titles or stories tend to be interpreted politically anyway.

    In this context, it is interesting to note that SkyNews – the 24/7 news outfit of Murdoch here – is playing, or is viewed as playing a center-left role: since anything that competes with Berlusconi is seen as such.

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  8. Michael says:

    The US doesn’t really need tabloids, it has broadcast media that performs a similar function (albeit minus ‘News in Briefs’ – I think we can claim that as our own unique contribution to the news agenda). Thankfully, the British broadcast media has yet to become as partisan as it is in the US, where issues are routinely debated by a ‘panel’ of pundits with broadly the same view.

  9. Matt says:

    Forget Swift and Pope, et al. Our tabloids’ stock-in-trade is not satire but sentimentality + slapstick. Celebrities do not fuck; they “romp”. This goes back to Fielding. Squaddies and NCOs – Our Boys – are consistently let down by the Brass and the Pen Pushers and some somebodies sitting in some comfortable somewhere. This goes back to Kipling. The middle classes, armed with both Virtue and Common Sense, are in constant war against weird theories that rise with the Rhine and the Seine and against the killjoys of the Circumlocution Office (health and safety officers, etc). This goes back to Dickens.

    The content is cloying. Foreigners only pretend to be shocked by that. Really, they don’t care. The methods are something else.

    My ideal would be to have a tabloid press that is more relentless in its mission to punch peep holes in the walls of the corridors of power, but slightly – and let’s not go overboard – more scrupulous about how it goes about doing this. The salaciousness and xenophobia and nation-of-animal-lovers stuff are present in the culture whether you like it or not, and will always out.

  10. R.S.S. says:

    The main reason is because Brits are the most gossipy people on earth. If you asked people in London whether they’re familiar with a certain topic that is making headlines in the tabloids, I guarantee over 90% will not only say yes, but will give you the background of the story going back months or even years. But don’t ask anyone why they need to know such trivial matters. They just do. And the tabloids distribute that trivia to the willing buyers on the street.

  11. Britain has its unique tabloid press because the British understanding of freedom is largely “negative” (using Isaiah Berlin’s terminology). That is, it doesn’t have a moral dimension — it is merely the absence of external obstacles to getting what you want, whatever it is you happen to want. Thus the liberal British political tradition of Hobbes, Locke and JS Mill respects the mundane wishes of ordinary people, which are often quite salacious. Thus the British idea of a “free” press tends to be rather anarchic, raucous, teasing, provocative of discussion, a deliberate wind-up for the sake of controversy, etc.
    Contrast the “negative” with the “positive” concept of freedom, which does have a moral dimension — it’s essentially empowerment, a matter of coming to want to the right things, as in the “general will” of Rousseau or “dictatorship of the proletariat” of Marx. Outside of Britain, it is more widely assumed that a “free press” should educate, instruct, enlighten, and basically put people on the right political track. Their idea of a free newspaper is a sort of “guardian” (small G) of the people like the Guardian (big G). [View from Cork, Ireland]

  12. Oggi Georgiev says:

    I have read the blog and it is a very interesting read indeed. I would like to point out an example from Bulgaria – the tabloid press here is a very perverse attempt to copy the British example, but without the hard-checked facts and without the running and working on a developing story. They simply use a mixture of lies&rumours&half-truths and put them out on the front pages.

    Seems that the audience is very receptive towards such type of press, mainly because they believe in what the papers write and also because they have seen the British press do the same, so “it must be right”. The 2 best-selling newspapers are of such type – people sue them and still it has little effect on the circulation. It is an interesting development but it sinks the overall level here to the bottom, because it suffocates the real press.

  13. Laura says:

    I suspect Britain has such an aggressive tabloid press because Britons are, for the most part, passive-aggressive. Consequently, they require their newspapers to do collectively, what they lack the guts to do individually.

    I agree with RSS’s suggestion that Britons’ tendency to be “gossipy” feeds into this; again, it is a behind-the-back approach, rather than direct.

  14. JKP says:

    As many have commented, the tabloid-like press comes in different forms in places like France, Italy or Spain. However I’d contend they’re not quite as vicious as the Sun or NoW can be.
    I find it interesting that in the main it is right wing/conservative tabloids that are most popular in the UK, because for all the talk of the Sun, at least the reader knows what he’s in for and most people actually read it at some point. The Mail though is read by people who believe they are of a higher social strand that Sun readers and passes itself off as a ‘quality’ paper. I don’t think I have any of my friends who read it, ever, unlike the Sun. What that says about Daily mail readers I don’t know.

    As for investigative journalism, the Paksitan cricket scandal or the Fifa bribery exposé is fair enough (even though it’s a fine line between that and entrapment), but the key point with the Murdoch empire has to be that first and foremost it uses its papers to push its political agenda. It’s just influence peddling.

  15. Tim Holloway says:

    I have heard so much middle class twerpery this last couple of weeks, all trying to analyse newspapers they don’t read, in the same way as the liberal left keep trying to understand people they don’t know but laughably pretend to speak for. Look at the number of people who don’t admit to reading The Sun but plump themselves with such pomposity to think they understand why other people do.

    I’ve given up trying to explain that to anyone, but here is a different thought. We have a vicious tabloid press because we also have the most sanctimonious, self regarding middle class hypocrisy in the world, and especially the middle class left which has twisted every other aspect of our culture to its own image. Tabloids are the only thing in the country that don’t look and sound like a death ghast of liberal approval; and it may be scandalous to say, but we, the poor, the underclass, whatever name you give us, have no desire to be approved by all the fake politeness of the middle class. Which, of course, is nothing personal.

  16. Charlie Beckett says:

    Thanks for all the comments so far. Keep ‘em coming.
    I think the main consideration that I hadn’t factored in properly is good old-fashioned British class consciousness. I think Tim Holloway, representative of ‘the poor, underclass” (really Tim?) has a point amidst his anger. The tabloid mentality is not a bourgeois liberal mentality. But then much of the rest of the press is not particularly liberal either. And the tabs are a lot more liberal (ie non racist, non sexist) than they used to be.
    I also love the psychological suggestions that the Brits are somehow more gossipy, passive-aggressive, sentimental, and non-intellectual. But I suspect that is a myth, along with ‘English Reserve’ (think football holligans, binge drinking, X Factor etc) created by people who never meet non-liberal intellectuals whilst abroad. And bear in mind that to be ‘British’ is an increasingly odd mixture these days thanks to factors like devolution and migration.
    The boringly accurate conclusion would be a mixture of our politics, history and media market conditions that have arisen in reaction to our social environment. A sensible international comparison would also conclude that tabloid content simply appears in different guises and platforms in other countries.
    But I am going to go for a snappier answer. I think the tabloid mentality is a vital part of of press freedom in Britain. We need to be entertained as well as campaigned, investigated and debated. They do a good job of all that when they work well. But the real reason we love them is the same reason we love fox hunting and binge drinking – a mixture of base pleasure and ritual cruelty.

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