Last updated: April 14, 2012 12:11 am

Consumed by scandal

As the Leveson Inquiry is set to resume, a look at the tabloids’ rise and fall

British popular journalism has in effect been on trial for the past five months. Since the Leveson Inquiry hearings opened in November 2011, it has rarely been out of the news. Announced in July last year by the prime minister after it became clear that the News of the World, and perhaps other newspapers, had been routinely engaged in criminal activity, the inquiry into the culture, practice and ethics of the press, has so far called some 250 witnesses, with a further 149 submitting statements.

For the past century British newspaper journalism has been dominated – if consumer choice is the measurement – by tabloids, including in that category those mid-market papers that share some of their approach. From a total national newspaper circulation of a little less than 9m, tabloids account for nearly 7m, with two – the Sun and the Daily Mail – in the top 20 titles in the world by circulation. According to the Audit Bureau of Circulation figures for 2012, the Sun has a circulation of 2.58m; the Daily Mail 1.95m; the Daily Mirror 1.1m; the Daily Star 620,000; and the Daily Express 577,000 (a few copies fewer than the broadsheet Daily Telegraph’s 578,000). These figures, with about the same for their Sunday sisters, can be nearly trebled for readership. The inquiry, under the chairmanship of Lord Justice Leveson, is thus a crucial passage in British social and political life.

Over the half-year in which the inquiry has been in session, two separate accounts of the popular papers’ behaviour and importance have emerged. The first has been the evidence of those who saw – and still see – the tabloids’ veil-ripping mission as both defining characteristic and a source of professional pride. Paul McMullan, a former reporter and deputy features editor on the late News of the World (NotW), thin, intense and more willing to spill the beans than the barrister quizzing him was willing to push him, roared on to the stand last November, proclaiming that he hugely enjoyed invading privacy for two decades, years in which he “never found anybody doing any good”; “privacy”, he went on to declare, “was for paedos”.

He excoriated two former bosses – Andy Coulson, editor of NotW from 2003-2007, then director of communications for the Conservative party (2007-2010) and the prime minister (2010-early 2012), and Rebekah Brooks, Coulson’s predecessor and boss at the NotW, then editor of the Sun (2003-2009) before becoming chief executive of News International, Rupert Murdoch’s UK newspaper business (2009-2011) – for betraying their colleagues. They both knew about phone-hacking, he claimed. His was the stance of the unrepentant pirate: I did it, I modestly enriched myself from it, I loved it – and, if I swing, damn the eyes of those who scuttled for safety.

Most florid and least repentant of this party to appear before Leveson has been Kelvin MacKenzie, who edited the Sun from 1981-1994 – its glory years, as he likes to recall them, during the Thatcher era. In his witness statement, he said: “I didn’t spend too much time pondering the ethics of how a story was gained, nor over worry about whether to publish or not. If we believed the story to be true, and we felt Sun readers should know the facts, we published it.”

His swaggering sense of his role is best seen in this exchange, from his evidence to the inquiry in January:

Barrister: In September 1992 [during Britain’s brief struggle to stay in the European Exchange Rate Mechanism], did you tell Mr Major [Mrs Thatcher’s successor] that you would throw a bucket of something unpleasant over him?

MacKenzie: That makes it sound as though I was being discourteous to the prime minister and it wasn’t quite like that. What happened was he called up on the night of the ERM ... and said to me, “I’m just calling you up, Kelvin, to find out how the story is going to play in the paper tomorrow,” and on that basis I simply said, “Actually, I have a bucket of shit on my desk, Prime Minister, and I’m going to pour it all over you.”

The second defence has been that the popular press is a powerful source of ethical good – good for political pluralism, good for the public interest and good for public morals. In a speech during seminars conducted before the inquiry proper began, Paul Dacre, editor of the Daily Mail and editor-in-chief of the Mail Group, argued that “Britain’s commercially viable free press – because it is in hock to nobody – is the only really free media in this country. Over-regulate that press and you put democracy itself in peril.”

Inquiry chairman Lord Justice Leveson©Getty

Inquiry chairman Lord Justice Leveson

In a speech to the Society of Editors in 2008, Dacre, whose Mail is a daily and brilliantly disciplined savaging of government follies, progressive fads and flouters of the time-honoured verities of British and family life, argued that the press “has the freedom to identify those who have offended public standards of decency – the very standards its readers believe in – and hold the transgressors up to public condemnation”. Dacre has, indeed, gone to some lengths to pursue transgressors: when, in 2006, the Information Commissioner compiled a list of newspapers who used a private investigator named Steve Whittamore (convicted in 2005 for breaching the Data Protection Act) to assist their search for transgressors, the Daily Mail was prominent on the list. According to files published this week by Paul Staines, who runs the Guido Fawkes blog, some 305 journalists made multiple requests to access information on people they wished to write about – with more than 1,000 allegedly made by journalists working for News International titles.

There is, however, no evidence that the Daily Mail journalists asked for phones to be hacked. Dacre has told the inquiry: “I am as confident as I can be that there’s no phone hacking on the Daily Mail.” In November, the actor Hugh Grant told the inquiry that the Mail on Sunday published a story in February 2007 about him that revealed he had had late-night calls with a “plummy-voiced studio executive” from Los Angeles. “I cannot for the life of me,” Grant told the inquiry, “think of any conceivable source for this story in the Mail on Sunday except those voice messages on my mobile.” Dacre responded by saying that Grant had spread “mendacious smears driven by his hatred of the media” – a statement that prompted Leveson to ask the editor for 30 minutes of his time for a further conversation.

These views of the popular newspapers may well both be true: even if the methods are those outlined by MacKenzie, their effect could be to produce the pluralism and the deterrence of transgression that Dacre sees as central to their purpose. Their importance is not so much their veracity: it is that they express an implicit confidence that they matter, that they are at the centre of the national story in a way popular newspapers elsewhere are not

Central to their existence has been a uniquely long and close relationship between the British popular papers and a largely working/lower middle-class readership. In that time – as my colleague Matthew Engel details in Tickle the Public (1996), his lucid history of 100 years of the popular press – the hegemony over the market has been held, in turn, by the Daily Mail, the original popular newspaper of the late 19th century, and then the Daily Express, whose heyday was the 1930s-1950s.

After the second world war, the Daily Mirror caught the social democratic tide. It had entered the bloodstream of a generation whose service in the war prompted them to hope for a more equal society. Engel notes that the National Labour MP Harold Nicolson wrote in his diary before the 1945 election that “they say the Daily Mirror is responsible for this swing to Labour, having pandered to the men in the ranks and given them a general distrust of authority”. By the 1950s, it was outselling the Express, at its best hovering a little below 5m. The Mirror covered the news with much the same agenda as the upmarket papers. Sylvester Bolam, editor of the Mirror from 1948-1953, said it did so by “being sensationalist to the best of our ability. Sensationalism does not mean distorting the truth. It means the vivid and dramatic presentation of events.”

By the 1970s, the drama was faltering. A new working class generation was less in thrall to the Labour party, was more individually assertive, had more money, had adopted and adapted the sexual revolution of the 1960s. The Sun, bought by Rupert Murdoch in 1969 when it was a fading leftish tabloid, caught something of that mood and shaped it into a right-leaning paper, full of scorn for a stumbling Labour government. By the 1980s, it dominated the market. More important than its political stance was a shift from a conventional news agenda to an increasingly ferocious concentration on celebrity, scandal and, above all, sexual revelation, a trail followed by its competitors. The Daily Star, for example, until recently the only British daily showing an increase in circulation, concentrates on sport, celebrities, gossip and sex. The online version of the Mail, with its focus on gossip, celebrity and semi-naked bodies, has become the most popular newspaper website in the world.

For scandal became the tabloids’ most important currency. It was competition for fresh scandal that led popular papers to chivvy their reporters and photographers into frenzies, howling after stories, bribing and “blagging” (lying) their way into confidences and personal information.

There was something stirring as well as hideous in the swagger of McMullan and MacKenzie, which contrasts with the Uriah Heep-like stuff spouted by their successors as they appear before Leveson.

In his witness statement, Dominic Mohan, editor of the Sun since 2009, said: “There are a number of different ways in which we strive to ensure that everyone on the paper behaves in a lawful, professional and ethical way.”

When the Sun’s royal editor, Duncan Larcombe, was questioned on January 9, he gave a picture of a journalistic beat respectfully providing heart-warming material about a much loved royal family. “You know,” Larcombe told the inquiry, “Prince Harry was in Las Vegas recently and we ended up pulling the front page, I think, at about 7.20 on a Monday night because there were pictures of him taken inside a club with 300 people there. When I put that to the palace, the palace’s argument was, “He’s got a reasonable expectation of privacy and we’d really rather you didn’t use the pictures.’ ” Oh, quite, quite.

. . .

A tabloid editor has, in my hearing, said that, once Leveson is done and fades into forgetfulness, the gloves will be off again. For the moment, though, a kind of strained, self-censoring respectability rules.

The first issue of the Sun on Sunday, for example, which appeared on February 26, taking the place of the NotW put out of its post-phone hacking revelation misery in July last year, was a sedate affair, with five pages devoted to the TV personality Amanda Holden’s baby, born in January, which caused her heart to stop for 40 seconds. There were no nasty scoops: an initial weekly sale of 3.2m copies fell to around 2.2m over the next three weeks: the last sale of the NotW had been 2.8m.

Tabloid revenge fantasies, however, are likely to remain unrealised for some time. Scandal may have prolonged fading powers but, in the end, it betrayed popular papers into excess and criminality. The sheer nastiness of the operation has been well aired.

The tactics of the scandal-mongers now appear more revolting than their supposed targets: refusing to be shamed or frightened into silence, Hugh Grant and former Formula One boss Max Mosley now hold public meetings, and speak at political conferences.

Today, celebrity, gossip, sex, and scandal, can be done faster and more graphically on the web: sites such as the New York-based Gawker continue to expand their reach. Paper circulations continue to fall at every level of the market. Politicians can no longer afford to fawn on press barons: the prime minister will be lucky to escape without serious damage from his intimacy with the News International leadership.

Newspapers’ life may be prolonged: but, if they have no profitable niche – reporting, say, on business and the economy – they will need owners with deep pockets, who can afford to sustain them because they want the influence, and the glamour, they still bring. Writing in the New York Times last week, the commentator David Carr reported on wealthy men in Omaha, San Diego and Philadelphia prepared to put their money into newspapers in these cities. The Omaha saviour was none other than Warren Buffett, the world’s most famed investor, who had in 2009 scourged businesses who thought of putting money into the “unending losses” of the newspaper business.

Tabloids came into being to make money – it was their reason for existing. They made fortunes for their owners; now they make them trouble. The British tabloids had a century of vigorous, raucous, often appalling, frequently talented life. Yet truth to say, by the time the scandals that the pure tabloids had relished for decades turned upon the papers themselves, there was little of worth left to mourn.

John Lloyd is an FT contributing editor and director of journalism of the Reuters Institute at Oxford University

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