Sunday, September 12, 2010

There is No Defence of the British Tabloid

The Case Against Andy Coulson continues to be analysed in the less Conservative friendly newspapers - notably the Guardian and Independent. Coulson, Cameron's now press chief and former News of the World editor, is the man currently at the heart of the story - always a bad position for someone whose job should keep them directing rather than starring in the drama - but both the Guardian and Independent (see this piece in today's Independent on Sunday for instance) have widened their investigations to implicate a much broader culture of illegal behaviour at the Murdoch tabloids that places the spotlight much more firmly on Murdoch's direct minions and even Murdoch himself. Since Murdoch controls the most ferocious tabloids in Britain, the story obviously stands as a pretty strong indictment of tabloid behaviour and attitudes, full stop. Now, however, there are starting to appear attempts to defend the appalling culture of the British tabloids.

One such appeared in the Bagehot column of the Economist this week. Bagehot has been taking a keen interest in this story in his online blog, and his appreciation of the awful power of the red-tops in general, and the NoTW in particular, have made some of his analyses compulsive reading. He once again shows, in this week's column, an unerring awareness of just what the red-tops do. After a brilliant description of the NoTW as "combining the cynicism of a brothel madame with the self-righteousness of a lynch mob", he goes on to show how the tabloids use their power over individuals:

British tabloids enjoy political power in several ways. Thanks to weak taboos about privacy, they wield the threat of personal exposure. If the current mood in Parliament, especially in the wake of last year’s expenses scandal, is one of bitterness and fear (because all MPs feel they now live under suspicion that they are “on the take”), the tone of the tabloids is one of undisguised triumphalism. To pick a recent case study, the Sunday Mirror reported on September 5th that the estranged second wife of an obscure Conservative MP was working as a prostitute. The following day, the outwardly respectable Daily Mail carried abject quotes from the MP on his doorstep, saying he knew nothing of his wife’s actions, and could prove that he was separated from her. At this point, the Mail noted coolly, the MP “began sobbing”. The piece concluded by naming his three children.

Cruelly humiliating individuals, creating huge scares over populist issues - these are the methods of the red-top. But, alas, Bagehot then throws all his good analysis away with a scandalously weak conclusion. The raucous British tabloids, he suggests, may be unsightly, and may disgrace politics, but they act as a lightning rod that keeps the baying right-wing populists at bay. He cites the example of Europe's more reasonable press, suggesting that because they do not provide an outlet for such fury they contribute to the rise of the type of right-wing nationalist who gets short shrift in Britain. Sorry Bagehot, but absolutely wrong. Not only does he have the impact of the European media wrong (a much more detailed, thoughtful, if slightly dull book on the subject by academic Antonin Ellinas exists for those who are interested), but his attempt to explain the failure of the British far right falls disastrously short of the mark. Remove this tenuous defence, and the British tabloid is then revealed as a harsh, cruel, malicious and wholly malign influence on the British body politic.

A more hysterical defence appears in the online paper The First Post. Written by Brendan O'Neill, it is in the form of an attack on the Guardian newspaper for daring to devote its precious time to investigating and criticising the Murdoch press. O'Neill's extraordinary attack on the Guardian suggests that by shining a light on the less than savoury methods of the News International papers they threaten to condemn all media to greater censorship. Keeping a bad tabloid press is better than watching it crumble, suggests O'Neill, who manages to take a very laissez-faire view of the NoTW's criminal activities. In fact, the Guardian (and, indeed, the Independent) is carrying out precisely the sort of thorough investigation that should be the meat and drink of the journalistic trade, and is far more likely to maintain a healthy and effective press than the shameful antics of the NoTW. That O'Neill seems to see the future of a free media as being intertwined with the rapacious, reckless and illegal antics of a tawdry newspaper shows just how out of synch with reality he is.

The red-tops are a blight on British society, and the fact that they are such a popular blight is no defence in this instance. David Cameron continued the recent tradition of merging the tabloids into the network of British governance with his appointment of Andy Coulson and his deference to the court of King Rupert. It would be an irony indeed if such a merger ultimately proved so damaging to him that he lost both his press chief and his credibility. In the meantime, Britain still awaits a political class willing to do more than simply bend over in terror when the tabloids come calling.

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