Is It Time We Washed Our Hands Of The Tabloid Press?
Updated: Jul 28
If you take a look at the news today, chances are you'll be seeing headlines that relate to the Duke & Duchess of Sussex pretty much washing their hands of Britain's most famous and intrusive papers, citing that from this moment onwards, "There will be no corroboration and zero engagement". With such prominent figures now denouncing the lifeblood of the newsagents, is it time we all did the same?
I've written about the tabloids before, only a matter of weeks ago, and even since then, their sensationalism hasn't gone away. It's what these papers are built on, and in this world of media smoke and mirrors, sensationalism and telling straight lies are what these papers do day-in, day-out. The reason for such is most likely due to the fact that unlike television stations, newspapers don't undergo any regulation relating to political bias. They can print pretty much what they like, defacing any politicians or groups of people as they go. Whilst every journalist undergoes training and education on media law and ethics, it appears that the people who work for such papers have thrown it out of the window.
As with everything important, this all starts with history. Politically-motivated British newspapers have existed since the English Civil War, with two opposing sides and linked papers. The Mercurius Britannicus supported Parliament whilst the mocking Mercurius Aulicus backed the royalists. It's one of the first examples of a propaganda paper, and this became all the more apparent centuries later with the sudden rise of the Labour Party. Following their first majority in the wake of the Second World War, Clement Attlee established a royal commission to investigate the press entirely, but in particular, the wholly disproportionate numbers of right-wing papers in a left-wing age. Owner of the Express, Lord Beaverbrook echoed the mocking tone of the Mercurius Aulicus: "My purpose originally was to set up a propaganda paper, and I have never departed from that."
By the turn of the decade, the organisation Mass Observation would conduct one of the first ever domestic studies into the relationship between the newspapers and their readers, through the critical analysis of press consumption in public places such as libraries. The survey found that 58% of people read political news stories, as opposed to the classic gossip or sport pages that we associate with the tabloid press today. The 1950 election would see a massive 83.9% turnout as well as another Labour victory. Compared to 1945, the 1950 election had a voter turnout increase of around ten percent, which goes to show that post-War Britain was a highly politicised society, but then again, with radical reforms such as the welfare state and NHS in full-swing by Attlee's second term, it was hard to ignore their impact.
The survey went on to portray how the sway that newspapers had on people's opinions was actually very little and subtle, despite the words of Lord Beaverbrook stating that the Express was designed as a "propaganda paper". Mass Observation described the process of newspaper influence as a "subtle, almost imperceptible process", completed through one of two mediums, either "the long-term reinforcement of opinions already held" or to "sow seeds and implant suggestions on points to which people have up to now given next to no thought.". In short, the way that the papers got inside people's heads at that time was through the slow-burning and implanted sentiments of a right-wing ideology lost in the hubbub of a socialist society.
This implantation of suggestion is something that's carried through to the modern day, proving that history repeats itself when it comes to media consumption. History continues to prove that people tend to follow on from previous generations. There's no finer exponent of a lack of change in media consumption than the Brexit referendum and aftermath from 2016 up to now. If it hadn't have been for the tabloid press bringing up long-forgotten feelings on European Union legislation and immigration through headlines such as "BRITAIN'S 40% SURGE IN ETHNIC NUMBERS" in the Daily Mail or "MIGRANT MADNESS" in the Daily Express, then Brexit may never have happened.
This can be looked on in two ways. In one sense, the papers have once again sowed seeds of information in their journalism that some will believe, and with the large readerships that these papers carry, it's a clever ploy to sway voters to the Leave side of the campaign, the side that most broadsheet commentators thought would get trounced. Maybe that went to prove that the tabloids are actually cleverer than we all make out - after all, following John Major's victory in 1992, the Sun proudly proclaimed "IT'S THE SUN WOT WON IT." across the front page. However, the other way this can be looked in is that for the papers to change their habits, it would need to be catalysed by a monumental shift in the way they operate. As Tom Scott points out here in a video released today, "People don't like change. Actually, that's not true. People like just the right combination of novelty and familiarity." Whilst that comment focuses on the style of his video production, the same sentiment applies. If the tabloid papers were to completely go, it would upset a lot of people. Their continued popularity is down to the combination of slightly sensationalist and novelty headlines and the familiarity of language that they use to appeal to a 37m strong audience reach in the case of The Sun.
You may think that something would've been done about this method of media consumption and their perpetual motion machine of feeding the brain with little tidbits of over-the-top headlines, but nothing has. Even with the outbreak of a disease, that same view, it can be said, is being brought up. An Express headline from around a week ago offered the view that "Richard Tice orders Boris Johnson to make UK self-sufficient and NOT reliant on China". On first look, this might seem like quite the intriguing read, even with the backing of Brexit Party Chairman Richard Tice. Then again, is it just a story about nothing? Self-sufficiency may not seem that difficult, given the point that people would have to lower expectations about the amount of things to buy and the variety on offer to solely focus on domestic production.
The argument with this though, it can be said, falls flat in a couple of areas. Firstly, the nature of world trade and specialisation of different areas in different nations means that one country, such as Britain, can't be fully self-sufficient. We're dependent on the world for 48% of our food intake through imports, and sure, whilst we make over half, it's not exactly a large variety of produce. Some people will be able to resist the urge to buy foreign products, but in a world where patterns of trade are built on regions more so than ever before, it is becoming increasingly difficult. Secondly, the argument surrounding loosening China's grip on the British economy. The way that the world economy has gone over the last decade or so means that China has grown more and more as time has passed, with sky-high growth rates that us in the West would dream of achieving, meaning their overall market power has increased. In the wake of the recession, firms lost profits, and in an attempt to recoup some of that lost cash in the long-run, moved to nations such as China with a somewhat untapped manufacturing potential. China offered large firms like Apple the chance to continue to innovate in Silicon Valley, but make their newest phones and laptops in China for a lower cost, causing higher margins. There's also less business red tape in China, meaning that whilst it's ethically wrong by Western standards, business costs in that regard aren't so high. Sure, it's taking jobs away from domestic workers, but as the world was getting on its feet again, higher business profits should aid in bringing economies back into the black.
Pretty much everything that is sat in front of me, or you as you read this, is Chinese made. The keyboard you're typing on, the monitor you're looking at, the phone you're texting with - everything is Chinese. It's mightily hard to escape the Eastern sphere of influence, not least in their manufacturing sector. However, for those in favour of a waning Chinese influence, this is one of their last stages of economic development before they move to service-based industry, much like in Britain. We've had a net trade surplus in services for years, but have been brought down in goods that need importing, simply because we don't make anything here anymore, and what we do make is often exported and actually as a result of foreign direct investment from the likes of Toyota and Tata. The order of economic evolution usually runs from raw materials/commodities, through specialisation in one industry (e.g. Bangladesh & textiles), to an industrial revolution in manufacturing (where China are now) and then to services. China have had a booming manufacturing sector for years now, and soon enough, the money in manufacturing will dry up, and the big companies then face a choice. They can either turn their attention to the African continent which has largely been ignored thus far or move jobs back to their homelands. By this time, who knows what the Chinese influence on manufacturing will be? One of the only things that is for certain is that in this increasingly interconnected global world, entire self-sufficiency isn't plausible.
It's difficult to think of a way that the tabloid papers have been successful. However, some may say that news articles have been made more accessible with the advent of the Internet age thanks to the wide-reaching tabloids, and there are a multitude of figures to back this up. Tabloid papers have had to adapt to the digital age, and they've done that as well as they can, especially with nine out of twelve of the UK's top papers through 2019 reach being tabloids. The Sun topped the list, with a reach of nearly 37m over the course of last year, knocking the Daily Mail off its long-held perch as the most read publication in Britain. The argument surrounding the good that the tabloid papers provide are usually based on easier-to-digest news compared to higher-brow broadsheets like the Guardian and The Independent. It would be wrong to wholly dismiss the tabloids as news outlets especially due to their wide-reaching audience and high share of readership nationwide.
To sum up, is it right for people to wash their hands of the tabloid press? Maybe, maybe not. Their unregulated nature does allow them to say anything they please, which suits some more than others, as they speak the mind of their readership and allow for occasions such as Brexit to occur. On the other hand, their scandalous past means that they aren't likely to be around for much longer. However, the overall issue isn't just with the tabloid media. No outlet just reports facts; every journalist and outlet in the land will put spin on anything anyone reads. It's just the nature of the media in a highly politicised nation such as Great Britain. Overall, it's a hard enough question to answer and maybe we should keep the papers deregulated and allow them to keep churning out articles for people to read. At the end of the day, are nearly 37m people wrong for buying the Sun? Not necessarily. Maybe it's the critics that are wrong for even daring to challenge.