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?”
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.