Bottom Feeders of the World Contrite

British tabloids have nothing to lose but their shame -- and maybe their circulation.

Topics: Rupert Murdoch,

| the week that the British tabloid press was blamed — not least by its readers — for killing Diana, its circulation rocketed, as the commemorative supplements appeared. They were determined that St. Diana would never be forgotten (“Now you belong to heaven, Angel on high” said the funeral caption in the News of the World ); but it was just as important for the papers to ensure that that their own behavior would never be remembered. On the morning of her death, the newspapers printed the night before were on sale, carrying on as if she were still on earth: “Loathe us if you like, Diana, but please act your age” (Jessica Davies, a columnist in the Mail on Sunday), “Diana on the couch … and her mother-in-law too” (Oliver James “attempts a daring royal psychoanalysis” in the Sunday Times), “Sad Wills wants Di to ditch Dodi” (the News of the World’s weekly Royal Exclusive).

The News of the World, Rupert Murdoch’s Sunday tabloid, had a 40-page pullout supplement the day after the funeral, which covered in depth every aspect of the ceremony — except Earl Spencer’s attack on the press. This could not entirely be ignored, since every one of the paper’s readers would have heard it on television. So it was buried in four sentences, 800 words into a story that started, “Diana’s brother Charles Spencer used the funeral to make a bitter attack on the royal family — and left the queen outraged.” The three stories on the front page of the main section of News of the World were a soccer manager explaining that he had lost a vital match after being introduced to her: “I couldn’t concentrate on the match after seeing her — and we lost. I reckon her smile cost me the cup”; “Mothers name babies after princess”; and the obligatory Royal Exclusive: “Diana’s staff told to leave palace.” The centerpiece of this last story is her butler, whose silence produced one of the most perfect tabloid headlines of the week, a quote splashed on the front of the Daily Mirror: “Nobody will ever know how close my brother Paul was to Diana, and he’ll not say.” The whole of pages 2 and 3 were taken up with his silence.



The competing Daily and Sunday Mirrors are probably the worst of the British tabloids. Last month, when the Sunday Mirror bought paparazzi shots of Di and Dodi kissing, the Daily retaliated by publishing a picture of the couple that had been altered to make them seem as if they were about to kiss. But the most influential tabloid in Britain is neither the Sun nor the Mirrors but the mid-market Daily Mail, whose formulas have been copied, and executives hired, by all the broadsheet papers, from the Times up. Unlike the down-market tabloids, the Daily Mail hardly ever publishes untruths: It pumps up its stories by omitting facts rather than inventing them. But it still feeds off an agenda of private unhappiness. Earlier this summer, a country priest of whom no one had ever heard ran off with a parishioner’s wife. The News of the World broke the story by supplying the cuckolded husband with a camcorder with which to film the couple in his bed — and then publishing stills from the video. The Daily Mail followed this up with four days of in-depth interviews with all the parties involved. And this is the single most profitable and politically powerful newspaper in England.

That kind of behavior is the background against which the pursuit of Diana was played out. Now that she’s dead, it is clear that no paper will dare to treat the royals like that for some time. The Mail, its rival the Express and the Sunday News of the World have all renounced the use of paparazzi photographs. But the most significant development has been the attacks on the tabloids by the broadsheet press. The Daily Telegraph has published a bitter attack on the Mail, calling it “disgusting” and “evil” — language usually reserved for people like Pol Pot. This is partly because the editor of the Daily Telegraph, Charles Moore, is a royalist on principle who took the prince’s side in all the disputes with Diana and was horribly shocked by a Mail story describing the prince pacing over the moors alone when he received news of his ex-wife’s death. It is also because Moore has always been an insider, a man for whom comment is free, but the gossip of the establishment is sacred.

The Mail has retaliated with a campaign against Moore personally, first in its gossip columns and then in its routine boasting about its monthly circulation figures: “Industry observers are concerned that the Telegraph, obsessed by the Church and arcane constitutional questions, has rapidly diminishing appeal in the modern world. ‘The real problem,’ said one media analyst, ‘is that the Telegraph is edited by a dilettante who seems more concerned with reaching the airwaves than actually editing his paper.’”

It looks as if the long alliance between the broadsheets and the tabloids against government intervention is coming to an end. This alliance has historically depended on a paradox: that the British press is simultaneously less restrained by taste and more constricted by law than almost any other. It has license without liberty. Kitty Kelley’s forthcoming book on the royal family will not be published here for fear of libel suits and other legal complications. There is no freedom of information act, though all parties support the cause when in opposition. So all the newspapers, regardless of quality, have felt squeezed together in self-defense against more regulation in the last decade. But earlier this summer, Alan Rusbridger, the editor of the Guardian, suggested that the quality press could live with laws to regulate “brutalist and intrusive journalism” in exchange for concessions such as a Freedom of Information Act.

Since 1979, no one has been elected prime minister in this country without Rupert Murdoch’s blessing. However, Tony Blair’s position now seems almost as strong as Margaret Thatcher’s was after the Falklands. If he wants to do something about the tabloid press, he will never have a better chance. But the indications are that he will do nothing. Industry watchers believe that some kind of code of conduct that will keep the cameras out of the princes’ faces is the most that will emerge.

So the tabloids will draw back a little from the princes, at least until William is 21; and in a couple of months the public will have forgotten its revulsion from the methods of the press. There is a vicious circle involved here. A reliable poll this summer showed that 76 percent of the public did not trust journalists to tell the truth, a figure surpassed only by politicians in general, and government ministers in particular. But the less the newspapers are trusted to tell the truth, the more they must sell entertainment; and producing entertainment entails all the habits that make them untrustworthy.

Andrew Brown is a writer and journalist in Britain. His book "The Darwin Wars" is published in the U.S. by Simon and Schuster.

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>