Bottom Feeders of the World Contrite

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

Published September 16, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

| 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.

By Andrew Brown

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

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