July 19, 2013 2:10 pm

John Lloyd: The future of the British tabloid

Two years after the News of the World closure, the ‘red tops’ are in militant mood, fighting regulation and determined to seize back the initiative from the internet
The final edition of the News of the World, July 10 2011

The final edition of the News of the World, July 10 2011. The paper closed in the wake of the phone-hacking scandal

Sue Douglas is one of the few female big beasts in the popular newspaper jungle. She has been at different times assistant editor of the Daily Mail, deputy editor of The Sunday Times, editor of the Sunday Express. She has a first-class degree in ­biochemistry and is a survivor of a brain haemorrhage. She now takes on a particular and intricate challenge.

Douglas wishes to revive and promote the values of the News of the World.

As she sees it, the News of the World, closed two years ago by Rupert Murdoch as a ritual sacrifice to the Leveson inquiry (an exercise prompted by revelations of phone hacking at the paper) possessed great strengths – as well as a weakness for the illegal ­accessing of private conversations. These included a talent for puncturing the pretensions of members of the establishment, a sly wit and a nose for the concerns and social ailments of ­ordinary ­citizens. Douglas has talked of reviving a “lost art of describing human fallibility” in non-judgmental terms – in the tradition of Shakespeare and of Dickens.

The Sun’s Sunday edition, the Sun on Sunday, launched to fill the News of the World gap, sells about 800,000 fewer than the latter’s final circulation of 2.7 million. The other Sunday tabloids – the Sunday Mirror, The People and the Daily Star Sunday – have all declined, by 5 per cent, 9 per cent and 32 per cent respectively (April to April). Douglas reckons there are between 1.5 million and 2 million unsatisfied readers who still yearn for the unique pleasures of a News of the World-type product.

Her plan for a freestanding title didn’t make it, however. Now, working with Rupert Howell, formerly managing director of brand and commercial at ITV, who had believed in her vision, she is working within Trinity Mirror to bring together the group’s Sunday People with a number of regional Sundays in the group under the rubric of “Sunday Brands”. Details are confidential, and a planned September launch has been delayed until later this year. It is clear, though, that a revamped People will serve their vision of a paper with the punch of the News of the World – and will also sustain a seven-day digital presence. Above all, Douglas and Howell are determined to buck the self-pity which has settled over the tabloids during and after the Leveson inquiry.

That sentiment is strong, and expressed by the embittered mutterings of journalists who feel themselves royally victimised. Against them, they believe, is the establishment, led by the political class and egged on by the Hacked Off campaign group, taking exquisite pleasure in drowning them like kittens below a new structure of press regulation. This, they say, will choke the investigative life out of what The Sun has recently called “the world’s most vibrant newspapers”.

Kelvin MacKenzie, The Sun’s editor at the peak of its circulation and power from 1981 to 1994, expresses the view of many. “A number of MPs went to jail due to a piece of journalism [the expenses scandal in The Daily Telegraph, 2009]. The crooks and thieves in parliament who escaped the courts are going to be judge and jury on the press? It’s preposterous!”

If Mackenzie and others are wholly non-contrite, others ­publicly were. The Australian-American Rupert Murdoch, the most powerful press proprietor in the UK, owning (before the inquiry) The Times and The Sunday Times, The Sun and the News of the World, told a committee of MPs in July 2011 that this was “the most humble day of my life”.

Contrition was shortlived. In a meeting with Sun staff and executives, the tape of which was leaked earlier this month, Murdoch said that “we’re being picked on … it was get-even time for the things that were done with The Sun over the last 40 years.” He suggested that payment to police and state officials was justified – “that’s been going on a hundred years, absolutely”. Phil Hall, editor of the News of the World from 1995 to 2000 and now head of his own PR firm, PHA, says, “If you’ve got a story which is in the public interest and the way you get to it is to pay an official for it, then it’s right to do that – because the evil is exposed.”

Tales circulate of reporters and editors roused from their beds before six, of children terrified by large police presences in their homes, and of two – John Kay, former chief reporter of The Sun, and Virginia Wheeler, former defence editor of the same paper – having been driven to attempt suicide. Wheeler, who had been charged with bribery, has had the charge dropped: both the defence and prosecution agreed that she was too ill to stand trial.

The emotional high point of Murdoch’s appearance before his Sun journalists was a letter written by the wife of a Sun executive to the News Corp boss, appropriately read out by Deidre Sanders, the paper’s agony columnist. The writer, describing a dawn raid by 10 police officers who charged her husband with conspiracy and corruption, wrote of one who “loves News International … who’d left family holidays midweek because they needed him … who wouldn’t even park on a yellow line … he came home shattered by the unending questions … a hideous political game for what end? To save News International’s integrity, put way before the wellbeing of its employees … ” “It’s a very very moving letter,” said Murdoch. “All right?”

Yet there is a deeper reason for the anxiety, which speaks to the very existence of the tabloids. In August 2012, pictures had appeared on the market of Prince Harry partying in Las Vegas. The most striking image was one in which the naked prince held his hands over his penis while a naked woman hid behind him. The pictures were published first by the website TMZ (affiliated to AOL). A day later, The Sun ran the picture on its front page beside the splash headline – “Heir it is!” and a smaller title – “Picture of Harry you’ve already seen on the internet”. The then editor of The Sun, Dominic Mohan, wrote a front-page editorial which argued that “Sun readers have a right to see them” (the pictures) – not just because they had, as the headline claimed, already seen them, but because their appearance “generated a legitimate public debate about the behaviour of a man who is third in line to the throne”. Mohan, by contextualising and justifying publication, was attempting to take back the initiative from the internet.

Front page of The Sun

One of The Sun’s best remembered front pages, from March 1986, during the editorship of Kelvin Mackenzie

Earlier that year, Mohan had appeared before the Leveson inquiry and called for a “level playing field” between the press and the internet because the latter could deal “a potentially mortal blow to the newspaper industry that’s already wounded”. Mohan knew that his paper was now competing not just with the Daily Mirror or the Daily Star but with a range of websites based in the US and thus free from regulation. These include Buzzfeed, Gawker, Perez Hilton, People, Radar Online: all of which display long lists of celebrity, scandal and sex-romp stories hour by hour. The Mail Online, the most successful news website in the world, also operates in this area. This month, the Mirror Group and the Daily Star have announced major revamps of their web offerings explicitly geared to catching up with the Mail and heading off the challenge of the gossip websites.

The tabloids are facing a “potentially mortal blow” from the internet. So in this struggle, they dare not be hobbled in their desperation to hold on – for at least a few years longer – to a business model which depends on flexibility in defining the public interest and the invasion of privacy. This existential anxiety is the main reason for the present dispute between the political parties and the majority of newspapers on the shape of a Royal Charter which will set the framework for a new press regulator.

At the time of writing there are two competing versions of a Royal Charter for a future press regulator. One is agreed among the three political parties and Hacked Off, the pro-regulatory pressure group. The other is produced by the majority of the newspaper groups. (Three daily newspapers – The Guardian, the FT and The Independent – had objections to both charters, though they are said to be moving towards agreement with the rest of the press.) The same language is used for some 90 per cent of the content of both versions: the regulator will be tougher than the present Press Complaints Commission, will (or may, in the case of the press charter) offer an arbitration service, levy fines of up to £1m and investigate alleged wrongdoing. But the press alliance is also determined to create the structure of the new regulator before the charter is agreed and has set out the framework for an Independent Press Standards Organisation (Ipso), where the real differences become more evident.

These differences are around parliament’s right to change the charter; the power of the funding body; whether or not there should be a trial scheme for the arbitration service; and the leeway given to publications to challenge investigations. But the key argument is on the Editors’ Code committee, which sets the ethical rules under which the press should operate and would be the criteria by which their activities were judged. The press want that to contain a majority of editors, arguing, according to a senior executive influential in drafting the charter, that “editors must have the responsibility and must have the authority”.

This would mean that the reasons for invading privacy and therefore of any public interest in doing so would remain in the hands of editors. The Ipso draft documents don’t spell this out but all editors are agreed that such a committee should have at least a heavy majority drawn from their ranks. Roy Greenslade, the most prominent commentator on the British press (and a former editor of the Daily Mirror) said that “the code is at the heart of this, as is the public interest. At the moment the public interest is defined in the PCC code loosely enough [It states “There is a public interest in the freedom of expression itself”, for example]. The editors see it as vital to keep that.”

There is little certainty about the future. The culture secretary Maria Miller told the Commons earlier this month that she would publish an updated version of the cross-party charter “in due course” – suggesting the present version is not set in stone. The press plans are advertised as final – and have been condemned by Brian Cathcart, director of Hacked Off as (quoting Lord Justice Leveson) repeating “a pattern of cosmetic reform”. Some voices urge attempts at compromise: the FT’s editor, Lionel Barber, argued at a meeting of the Commons culture, media and sport select committee in June that Lord Grade, a former BBC chairman, be appointed as a mediator between the press, the parties and Hacked Off. The senior executive, however, dismissed this, saying that the sides were divided by issues of principle and that Hacked Off – a bogeyman for the tabloids – would refuse any compromise.

Hacked Off is openly supported by the actor Hugh Grant and the wealthy associate editor of the New Statesman, Jemima Khan, but is constantly accused by its opponents of not divulging the sources of most of its funds. Hacked Off says that the funders fear victimisation and thus their names are often kept secret, known only to the campaign’s chairman, the barrister Hugh Tomlinson. Tomlinson himself was the subject of a Daily Mail story earlier this month which pointed out that he had defended a “crime lord”, David Hunt, and that he had argued that The Sunday Times should not have published an article exposing Hunt’s allegedly criminal behaviour. “There could hardly be a more urgent matter of public interest,” wrote the reporter, Steve Bird, “and yet Hugh Tomlinson, that highly paid QC from Hacked Off, argued fervently on his client’s behalf that Hunt was a simple man grievously traduced by a nosy newspaper”. Tomlinson will not comment on a former client whom he was obliged to represent robustly under the barristers’ “cab rank” rule. However, he said that the editors’ efforts to control the code were “misplaced” and that, in practice, a definition of the public interest would be flexible.

. . .

Professor Steve Barnett, a board member of Hacked Off and one of the most prominent of media academics in this debate, argues that “the press version is an argument for the lowest common denominator. If the Code committee is dominated by editors it will slip back into the same position as before. To argue that they are now under threat from gossip websites is disingenuous. These websites have small readerships in the UK – they don’t have the punch or capacity of the press, nor the capacity to harm ordinary people caught in a media storm.”

Lord Justice Leveson’s report on press ethics and culture was published last November when it seemed that public opinion overwhelmingly demanded punitive regulation and a new, strict, ethically responsible and interventionist regulator which would be able to substantially clean up the act of the British press. The tabloid press was then on the back foot. It is no longer.

Its defenders say that in September this year a series of high-profile trials of press executives, editors and reporters charged with corruption, phone hacking and perversion of the course of justice are likely to begin – trials which will show that the law, rather than draconian legislation, can deal with ethical breaches. Further, even if a regulator is agreed, it will be open to legal challenge. Large damages would, the senior executives believe, be overturned by the Strasbourg Court of Human Rights. The veteran civil rights lawyer, Lord Lester, said at a public meeting last month that the government’s charter “would be unacceptable in regulating the legal and medical professions, and it is unacceptable in regulating the profession of journalism that is already subject to many criminal and civil laws and sanctions”.

And money matters. The new regulator, in any version, will be much more expensive than the less than £2m the current PCC costs. The industry is expected to fund it. Those newspapers which believe they did not contribute to the problem, especially the battered regional press, don’t want to – and may not.

The issue which has long hung over the inquiry and its outcome is irrelevance – that it seeks to regulate a dying culture. Roy Greenslade says that he believes the Daily Mail and one “red top” tabloid, probably The Sun, will survive, perhaps for as long as a decade – but no more. “The tabloids are still good at doing the background to scandals – especially the Mail. People will still go to them for that for a bit, even if the new sites are first with the news.”

For a century or more, Britain’s popular newspapers have fought guerrilla skirmishes, pitting popular choice against establishment taste and decency and formal, BBC-type standards of truth and balance. They are bought, in paper form even now, by about ­7 million people every day as against the 1.5 million sales of upmarket (tabloid people like to say “unpopular”) papers. The past few years have seen a full-blown war, fought on the field supplied by Leveson and prompted by the tabloids’ own desperation for more intimate content. Ironically, they may, against the initial odds, be about to win this war or at least fight it to a draw. But they are losing the core strength, their hold on the market, and must embark on the uncertain currents of the internet, which will give them a much more modest existence or might even drown them.

What had seemed a simple matter of greater control is, once more, an argument between two great principles which have battled each other since the press become influential two centuries ago. These are, the freedom to publish, and the freedom to be private. It won’t be over soon: it will never be.

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John Lloyd is an FT contributing editor. To comment on this article, please email magazineletters@ft.com

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