07.22.11

How British Tabloids Lost Their Way

Booker Prize novelist Howard Jacobson says that the whole tragic farce of the Murdoch scandal reveals how far British tabloids have fallen—and lost touch with the people who read them.

The irony is that the phone-hacking scandal which closed Murdoch's News of the World, and is at present engulfing British society from the lowliest snooper into the private lives of celebrity nonentities to the highest offices of state, out-sensationalizes anything Murdoch's tabloid editors have managed to come up with in over 40 years of trying. Those who live by junk journalism, the moralist in me proclaims, shall die by junk journalism. But moralism had probably better hold its tongue. We are all weak before the flattery of the beautiful and the powerful, and someone must have wanted to read the piffle for the production of which laws have been flouted, common humanity outraged, and reputations go on being ruined even as we watch.

As for what exactly we are watching I am not sure anyone really knows. Compromised politicians are nothing new. Nor are unscrupulous journalists or senior policemen on the take. We British have a robust view of human nature. Frailty doesn't surprise us. But here are characters in the national drama we haven't seen before. In her demeanor, Rebekah Brooks would seem to be a new phenomenon—a person unable to conceal the depths of her self-satisfaction. Andy Coulson, late of the News of the World and even later of the prime minister's confidence, bears himself more secretively, but both, whatever their responsibility for the monstrous and, for the most part pointless, intrusiveness that is at the heart of this scandal, have managed to operate unguessed at by the public who know their names but enjoy no acquaintance with them, even of the televisual sort. How can there be such shadowy ascendancy in a world otherwise so brightly lit?

That Coulson and Brooks are close friends of the prime minister vexes the picture still further. Cameron himself has been something of a closed book—Eton and Oxford, which is as it should be, but then seven years at Carlton Communications, a company at the populist end of television. Has power changed its modus operandi while we weren't watching and repositioned itself in media and PR? What is this “rich set”—itself a gross anomaly at a time of enforced austerity in Britain—which Cameron and Rebekah Brooks are said to inhabit in the Cotswolds, alongside television presenters, rock stars, and public relations men? When did Chipping Norton become the seat of national influence and power, and when did such people occupy it?

As every day throws up a new accusation and a new shame, followed by a new resignation and a new arrest, so is a new veil removed from a society that is not the one we thought we knew. Is it real? Or are these figures playing a part in a lurid and factious drama fabricated by themselves, just as, in The Sun and the News of the World, they fabricated a national life that bore only a slender relation to the lives most of us were living?

It wasn't always this way. I read the News of the World as a matter of course when I was growing up in Manchester in the 1950s. It managed to be simultaneously a scandal sheet and a family paper. We didn't know the vicar who'd run off with three of his parishioners or the lord who'd been discovered without his trousers in the basement of his stately home with the butler—a man! What was he doing with a man?—but we didn't doubt these were figures in the national drama. Never mind that it was rubbish, it was our rubbish. Tweak the curtains of our neighbors and that was what we'd find. What is more, the paper was written in a language not too remote from the one we spoke.

What changed tabloid journalism was not just Rupert Murdoch, but television and the cult of celebrity, without which there would have been fewer phones to hack and fewer scandals of no moment to uncover.

What changed tabloid journalism was not just Rupert Murdoch, but television and the cult of celebrity, without which there would have been fewer phones to hack and fewer scandals of no moment to uncover. Television trivialized popular culture and the tabloids vulgarized it still further, adding a splash of false glamour to a national sex life which had previously rejoiced in its provinciality, feeding envy under the guise of that mawkish morality to which the British have always been addicted. Thereafter, under such editors as Rebekah Wade and Andy Coulson, the tabloids skipped off into a never-never nowhere land of fantasy behavior, deranged idiom, puns of a sort no living person would ever use, and heartlessness. No surprise, then, that having slipped the moorings of a common reality it slipped the moorings of a common decency as well. If the leading actors of this tragic-farce appear not to know what they have done wrong, that is because they have communed for too long with their own creations and have lost, along the way, the language of obligation and communality the rest of us know we cannot function without.