Any of the three million devotees of Rupert Murdoch’s top-selling daily tabloid, The Sun, with sufficient curiosity to take their eyes off page three, might have noticed something rather curious about the paper’s front page during the week commencing 21 November. A headline-grabbing news story involving a succession of celebrities and bereaved families with whose lives and activities the paper would normally have shown a very keen interest, had passed without comment. In fact, to find any reference at all in the paper to an event of great public interest and full of sensational revelations, they would have had to turn to page 6, where, on 22 November, it received a cursory mention at the bottom of the page. It was treated similarly by most of the other tabloids. Very puzzling? Not really.
The reason for the tabloids’ stony silence, or at best minimal grudging mention of the story, had nothing to do with lack of interest on the part of their proprietors and editors. It was because they themselves, used to being the unchallengeable makers and fakers of sensational and lurid “news” stories, had become the news. The spotlight was being turned on the shabby, disreputable and criminal activities that lie at the very heart of tabloid journalism in Britain. And they don’t like it one little bit.
In the wake of the scandal at News International that resulted in the peremptory closure of News of the World (The Sun’s Sunday sister), David Cameron, anxious to distance his government from their toxic association with Murdoch and to reclaim the initiative from Ed Miliband, announced in July that there would be a public inquiry into the relationship between the press and the public, the police and politicians. This would also extend to a consideration of media ethics, practice and culture. It is worth recalling that none of this would have happened had it not been for the diligence of a single journalist at The Guardian newspaper and a few MPs in working to expose the cover-up of criminality at the News of the World. Indeed, Cameron was a close friend and confidant of Rebekah Brooks, former News International chief executive, recently arrested and bailed in connection with phone hacking and corruption. He also chose as his director of communications former editor of News of the World, Andy Coulson, also arrested and bailed on similar charges. Lest it be thought that mentioning this is to unfairly accuse the prime minister of guilt by association, it need only be said that a huge pile of evidence was already building up against these people long before Cameron chose to dissociate himself from them. Indeed, he clung to them until the last possible moment. But in this Cameron was not alone. Celebrity and power, particularly when the latter was associated with Murdoch, cast its spell only too easily on his predecessors, Blair and Brown. Clearly it was also about patronage - and fear; the need to receive and retain the blessing of the great, all-powerful media mogul, without which all electoral hopes may as well be abandoned. And all this really tells us is that governments have been – and continue to be – in the grip of global corporate power. The deepening international financial crisis makes this clearer by the day.
So, the inquiry led by Lord Chief justice Leveson has begun its deliberations at the Royal Courts of Justice. Its first days have caused something of a stir and at the moment it looks as though it is likely to be thorough and exhaustive. It is unnecessary here to report in detail on the testimony of witnesses who have appeared so far. They have included celebrities and the parents of murder and abduction victims. All have had their phones hacked. They have given devastating accounts of the intrusive extremes to which tabloid journalists have gone in pursuing and harassing them. The actor Hugh Grant exploded what he called the “10 Myths of Tabloid Journalism”, cleverly debunking such hoary canards as the self-serving claims that any attempt at regulation means that we are “heading for Zimbabwe”, and that the current right to privacy under the human rights act “muzzles the press.” Harrowing accounts of the torments they have suffered at the hands of hackers and paparazzi have been given by parents of murdered and abducted children. Such behaviour has not been limited to the “main culprits” – Murdoch’s tabloids. Papers named also include the Daily Mail (self-styled champion of respectable middle class values), Daily Express, and Daily Mirror. These are the daily papers with the largest readership. They have a combined circulation of about seven million. Most of the tabloids thrive on prurient gossip, muckraking and sensationalism. When questions are raised about the ethics of their brand of journalism (to dignify their activity with a term it does not deserve) they retort that they are simply giving their readers what they want. They interpret “the public interest” as whatever the public (meaning their readers) finds interesting. It would be too easy to infer from this that peddling the salacious and superficial, however lamentable, is non-political. But this is far from the case.
It is often claimed that press freedom is not compromised by corporate ownership. This claim usually rests on the argument that the sine qua non for a free press is a “free society” by which is almost always meant, a capitalist society. The argument goes that only a free (capitalist) society permits the competition necessary for the free flow of ideas and the freedom of expression essential for a free press. Proof of the supposed truth of this contention is evinced by reference to the state controlled media of the former communist countries, and now of dictatorships such as those in Libya and Syria. So, just as it is claimed that in view of the failed socialist experiments in the Soviet Union and elsewhere, there is no possible alternative to capitalism, it follows that if we want a free press and communications media, we have no alternative to accepting the control of such media by corporate capitalism. Liberal critics of corporate control and the kind of egregious excesses exposed in the News International scandal, believe that the worst of these can be dealt with by tighter regulation. Before addressing these arguments it is worth looking again at the nature and extent of corporate power over the British press, and considering the political interest and influence of such power. For our present purposes only the tabloids will be considered.
In a market where newspaper sales are falling, four large corporations are dominant. News International (The Sun); Associated Newspapers (Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday); Trinity Mirror Group (The Mirror, Sunday Mirror, The People) Express Newspapers (the Daily Express, Daily Star) account for sales of 11.6 million tabloid titles. The editorial policy of most of these papers is solidly right-wing. The overriding concern of their proprietors is to extend their market share. Ethical considerations play no part in this. One only has to consider three of the main players in this field to see the point. Murdoch’s News International, the most powerful, is now too notorious to require further comment. Associated Newspapers is dominated by Lord Rothermere, one of the last of the old fashioned press barons. The Daily Mail has for more than a century followed an unswerving right-wing agenda and, in the 1920s and 30s was outspoken in its support for fascism. Its current editor, Paul Dacre has been described as “one of the most feared men in the country.” The newcomer, Richard Desmond, who owns Express Newspapers, made his millions as a pornographer. His company also owns TV Channel Five.
Those who defend the tabloids – primarily of course their owners, their editors and the journalists who work for them – claim that they are only giving readers what they want. Curiously, they have also sometimes argued that the largely right wing editorial line of these papers does not influence the voting behaviour of their readers. That this is nonsense may be adduced from the political stance of The Sun in general elections over the past twenty years or so. The most notable of its many crude anti-Labour admonitions was its front page on the eve of the 1992 election, which Labour was widely expected to win. It depicted a light bulb with the caption “Will the last person to leave Britain put out the light.” Following the surprise Tory victory, the tabloid proclaimed “It Was The Sun Wot Won It.” By 1997 the Tories were a busted flush and, prior to that year’s election, Murdoch summoned Tony Blair to an audience to assure himself that he would promote the interests of News International. He was so persuaded and duly threw the weight of his tabloid titles, especially The Sun, behind New Labour.
This is not to argue that the 11 million or so readers of the tabloid press in Britain are so gullible that they swallow whatever they are fed. But it is obvious that the strident right-wing, Europhobic and frequently xenophobic outpourings of these papers have an effect. The proprietors and editors intend that they should. The skill of the most popular tabloids lies in their deliberate cultivation of a journalistic style which persuades many working class readers that they “speak their language.” But this is only part of the purpose of tabloid journalism. Its main purpose is to encourage and perpetuate a preoccupation with trivia. Celebrity gossip, scandal – particularly involving the sexual peccadilloes of film actors or footballers – a studied anti-intellectualism and mock plebeian promotion of “common sense” are the common components of the most successful tabloids. The Sun, which is at once the most successful and the most unpleasant of them, bases much of its appeal on crude sexism, daily demeaning women by publishing pictures of topless nudes in provocative poses, thus perpetuating the immature “lad” culture on which it thrives.
There is a political purpose to all this. As long as the multi-million readership of papers such as The Sun continue to be preoccupied with trivia and worse, they will, it is hoped, take little interest in serious politics. They may be persuaded to meekly accept their declining living standards, severe cuts to public services, millions of unemployed, the abandonment of young people to a future without jobs or hope. They may, it is hoped, be persuaded that the two million public sector workers who are about to stage the biggest strike since the 1980s in defense of their pension rights, are “irresponsible troublemakers” who are “holding the country to ransom.” This is the political agenda behind the scandal that the Leveson inquiry is now exposing to the light of day.
What is now being exposed is a modus operandi by tabloid papers that should have been obvious to anyone who gave the matter a moment’s thought. The methods used to obtain the stories on which such papers thrive, involve criminal activity, unconscionable harassment and persecution of those targeted by the hacks and a breathtaking lack of concern for the misery they wreak in pursuit of their stories and their victims. For the first time all this is now being exposed to the light of day. Will it radically change the nature of tabloid journalism? Probably not. It is nevertheless a welcome development in what will be a long and arduous struggle to break the corporate power over the communications media. Until that power is broken, we will not have a free press.