The Power of British Tabloids

British people have a strange fascination with tabloids. They are not the only ones. But the power of tabloids in the UK is almost unbelievable. They elect governments. They topple governments. They present a warped view of society through sensationalist storytelling. In their picture filled pages, notoriety is mixed in with news and everything is fair game.

Spot the difference (in tone)

In 2018, a footballer named Raheem Sterling posted two articles on his Instagram about two teammates who had bought houses for their mothers. While the white kid, Phil Foden, received praise for setting his family up and keeping them together, the black kid, Tosin Adarabioyo, received disapproval and questions around his ability to buy the house in the first place.

Welcome to tabloid journalism, a place where skewed views, salacious factoids and unsubstantiated theories scream for attention in the British red top papers such as the Sun, Daily Mail, Daily Mirror, Daily Express and Daily Star. “Red top” because of their bright red mastheads that cherry pick bits of news to laud or lampoon. Tabloids wield enormous influence not just over the culture of the country but over politics too, so much so that nearly every single prime minster in the U.K. since Margaret Thatcher owes their rise (and fall) to tabloids.

What started out as a way to engage mass audiences on news items and crime stories at the turn of the 20th century, has become the single biggest measure of Britain’s political mood today. Tabloids pose as being anti-establishment yet back candidates left, right and centre for the top job. They can suddenly switch allegiances and they are extremely aggressive in the pursuit of their political agendas. They are also one of the biggest peddlers of paranoia and racist innuendo in Britain. Tabloids use their support to control political leaders and bend them to their will.

Naturally, media can play a huge part in politics anywhere. But the indefatigable link between government and media is special in Britain. The ushering in of Margaret Thatcher in 1979 and her close relationship with the newspaper magnate, Rupert Murdoch spelled the start of a new era for media power and tabloid journalism. The year 1992 was a particularly fruitful one for tabloids, especially the Sun (again, owned by Murdoch). Their famous headline against Labour’s Neil Kinnock, glided off the tongue, ‘If Kinnock wins today will the last person to leave Britain please turn out the lights.’ Most of their headlines are not this sublime. John Major from the Conservative party went on to win that election and the headline read, ‘It’s the Sun wot won it’.

However, Murdoch came to have many differences with Major’s government over media policies, including a decision which excluded Murdoch from cross media ownership of other franchises (ITV). So the Sun flipped to the Labour party in 1997 with Tony Blair who shamelessly courted Rupert Murdoch. But in 2000, the Sun abruptly decided that the same man was no good anymore as he might bring in the euro over the pound, and their headline read, ‘Is THIS the most dangerous man in Britain?’ But Blair did as he was told and the Sun flopped back to him in the 2001 election.

In 2007, Blair resigned and Gordon Brown came to power. The Sun was less than impressed with him and after backing Labour for 13 years, it flipped to the Conservative party. It supported David Cameron in the 2010 elections, and he won. Cameron too had lusted after Murdoch’s approval. After Cameron’s resignation in 2016, the Sun supported his successor, Theresa May but soon lost faith in her. It moseyed on to back Boris Johnson who became the prime minister in 2019.

But the story does not end there. Most tabloids supported Britain’s membership in the European Union (EU) in the 1975 referendum. But they went on to become fierce critics of the EU and relentlessly lobbied for Britain’s removal, culminating in Britain’s historic vote to leave in June 2016. One headline gloated, ‘World’s Most Successful Newspaper Crusade Ends In Glorious Victory For Your Daily Express.’ The power of tabloids is undeniable.

These deep links between media and government are not coincidental but a product of a common understanding. Many people who used to work in media now work in top jobs in government, or vice versa, albeit perhaps not in tabloids. Cue our current prime minster, Boris Johnson, a proud erstwhile columnist for The Telegraph. George Osborne, the former Chancellor of the Exchequer under David Cameron, became the editor of the Evening Standard while still an MP in 2017. He was heavily criticised for it; he stepped down as MP and carried on editing with little prior experience. In 2020, he quit his editorial post and became the editor in chief — the common understanding being that popular media will win the hearts and minds of the British public.

People often blame class divides for tabloids’ influence; tabloids are for the working class and broadsheets for the middle class. Traditionally, a tabloid is smaller in size, easily digestible and identifiable by celebrity culture and intrigue. A broadsheet newspaper is larger in size and has more serious news content and analysis. In recent years, many broadsheets have turned to tabloid formats, preferring to call these “compact” instead. But tabloid journalism has a place all its own and it appeals to more than just the British working class.

Psychology plays a huge part in this. People generally like to consume material which resonates with their beliefs. We subconsciously seek to confirm our own biases, and no small effort is required to overcome that knee jerk reaction. People who turn to a tabloid newspaper tend to turn to it precisely because it spares the exercise of thought and empathy.

In some ways, Britain remains quite Elizabethan in character, steeped in dogma, bawdiness and gossip. If the news item is juicy enough, whether the news itself is relevant, accurate or substantive is almost beside the point. Tabloids do not mind speaking to the shallow and petty side of human nature, often revelling in others’ mistakes and throwing them in our faces. They make people feel marginally better about themselves and their own lives. But they provoke more than just gossip, more than a bit of schadenfreude. They provoke real fear and anger.

It is no secret that tabloids like to exploit societal tensions over class, immigration, race and wealth. In 2015 the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, urged the UK to take steps to curb the incitement to hatred by tabloids. Among other things, the Sun called migrants cockroaches, in language reminiscent of Nazi propaganda about exterminating undesirable people. To give just one example of the prevalence of hate speech in British tabloids, the UN Commissioner cited how, back in 2003, the Daily Express ran 22 negative front page stories about asylum seekers and refugees in 31 days. With the result that the British masses continued to deepen their hostility towards “foreigners” and eventually voted to leave the EU when they got a chance. Then there is BBC news, whose supposed impartiality and integrity are simply not titillating enough to sway the public vote. Nor does it want to. But if you have low standards for truth and accuracy, you can get away with a lot. And that is exactly what a tabloid does.

Although tabloids attack all manners of people, from political figures to celebrities to the royal family, their scrutiny is highly selective. The power to pry does not come with any responsibility and the intense competition in the field necessitates bigger and bolder headlines. Compared to American media, which too has its share of tabloids such as the National Enquirer or The Star, British tabloids have far more influence and they directly impact democratic decisions. Across the pond, tabloids’ main job is entertainment not news. Over here, their job is a frightening hybrid. The combined readership of tabloids far outstrips those of broadsheets in the UK. And that is dangerous.

Tabloids’ readership has waned in recent years, attributable in part to the explosion in news via social media which has accelerated the polarisation in society. However, tabloids wreak plenty of havoc and continue to hold significant sway. They are still consumed by millions of people. Social media algorithms though have compounded the problem by reinforcing peoples’ existing biases online and pointing them towards more insular and inflammatory material.

The recent protests and blockades outside News Corp sites (Murdoch owned news enterprises) in the U.K. are a testament to how important media’s role is, and why Extinction Rebellion (a grass roots climate activist network) chose to target News Corp for doling out misinformation and conspiracy theories about climate change. While newspapers will find it difficult to completely eliminate an editorial point of view from stories, broadsheets at least make more of an effort to be trustworthy and authoritative. Tabloids have no such principles, eschewing any effort for quality journalism, and preferring to go for the sensational and the lurid, anything that sells.

Since a tabloid actively avoids depth and nuance, neither it nor its audience has to concern itself with any standards. But surely a tabloid needs to bear some responsibility for the quality of its news output, and its audience needs to be equally wary of its dubious foundations. It should not masquerade as a real newspaper if it cannot be bothered to check its facts, errors, omissions and prejudices.

No wonder then that tabloids routinely get sued for defamation. Johnny Depp recently locked horns with the Sun for alleging he was a wife beater. Worse still, tabloids casually indulge in more nefarious activities. The News of the World, another Murdoch owned, top selling tabloid actually ended up closing its Fleet Street doors after it was discovered they had hacked into the phones of a murder victim, a young girl as well as families of deceased British soldiers. These were not isolated incidents; Murdoch enterprises admitted the phone hackings had been going for years.

Unfortunately, not every tabloid will face the investigations and condemnation that News of the World did back in 2011. Nor will wrongs always be so obvious. The real trouble lies in the narratives tabloids spin; their themes of contempt and xenophobia continue to have a huge impact on society in both overt and subtle ways. Cue nearly all the British prime ministers from the past four decades, beholden to national tabloids which consider it their job to pry, provoke, promote and purge.

Curbing media freedoms however, is not the answer to this hydra-like problem; if you cut off one head... well, you know the rest. What we need to do is hold tabloids to a higher standard, and demand more accountability. We need to base our opinions about people and world events on evidence, not emotions. We need to learn to recognise and challenge our own assumptions. Above all, we need to hold ourselves to a higher standard and question what we read and why we read it.

Civil Servant. Lawyer. Concerned citizen.

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