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Monitoring the popular press: an historical perspective

by Adrian Bingham

Executive summary

  • The British popular press is repeatedly accused of being untrustworthy and irresponsible; of poisoning political debate and undermining the democratic process; of inciting hostility against immigrants and ethnic minorities; and of coarsening public life by promoting a sleazy and intrusive celebrity culture.
  • This paper argues that many developments regarded as being recent are actually the culmination of long-term tendencies. The press is not politically more powerful than in the past; and celebrity and human interest stories have dominated popular newspapers for several decades.
  • Instead the three main areas where the press is justifiably open to attack are: in failing to represent and respect the diversity of modern Britain; in privileging speed and short-term impact over accuracy and reliability; and in its reluctance to accept and reflect on the social responsibilities involved in popular journalism.
  • To regain credibility, there needs to be a change in the culture of the newsroom. For this to happen, self-regulation must be made more rigorous with a reform of the Press Complaints Commission (PCC).
  • The PCC should police its Code of Practice far more actively and rigorously, rather than simply responding to complaints when they come in. If no other sanctions can be found, a system of fines for serious offences may have to be developed.
  • At a time when much of the press is lambasting the government for its handling of the Freedom of Information Act, it should recognise its own responsibility to offer transparency. The PCC should follow suit by making its deliberations accessible.
  • This reform should be part of an informed and critical debate about the practices of journalism, in which historians have a key role to play. Media organisations and the PCC should be encouraged to open up their archives to researchers.

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Introduction

How much further can the reputation of the popular press sink? Opinion polls routinely find that the level of public respect for journalists is pitifully low - one recent survey placed 'journalists on newspapers such as The Sun, Mirror or Daily Star' well below even government ministers and estate agents in terms of trustworthiness, with only 7% believing that they could be relied upon to tell the truth. Television journalists, by contrast, were trusted by 49% of the sample. A wide range of critics and commentators has condemned the press for the irresponsibility that has fed this scepticism. In the Reith lectures of 2002, for example, Onora O'Neill attacked the way in which the press had evaded public demands for accountability, leading to a journalistic culture in which 'there is no shame in writing on matters beyond a reporter's competence, in coining misleading headlines, in omitting matters of public interest or importance, or in recirculating others' speculations as supposed "news".'

But if there is a widespread consensus that the press is generally untrustworthy, there are many different diagnoses of which particular problems are most pressing. The Financial Times journalist John Lloyd recently generated considerable debate with the thesis that the media have become over-mighty subjects, with newspapers privileging 'reportage which is suffused with moral or other judgements' and an ever-growing band of press commentators showing contempt for politicians and the democratic process. In conjunction with the think-tank Demos, he has called for the establishment of a Media Institute to monitor and criticise these trends. Others have been more concerned with the lack of political coverage in newspapers dominated by celebrity stories and sports reports. This decline of serious current affairs articles has contributed, it is argued, to popular disengagement from politics. One of the few political issues regularly given prominence is the issue of immigration, and many commentators have despaired at the hostility directed at so-called 'bogus asylum-seekers'. Meanwhile, the entrenched pin-up culture and obsession with 'kiss-and tell' stories have drawn the ire of feminists and moral campaigners alike. With the circulation of almost all newspapers falling steadily, these various critics can all reasonably claim that disgust at these tendencies is causing the public to turn away from the press.

There is a lot of force in these criticisms of the contemporary press: there are, undoubtedly, many legitimate grounds of complaint. Nevertheless, with some notable exceptions these discussions suffer from a lack of historical perspective. Without this historical dimension it is impossible to tell whether these tendencies are new, when the problems developed, or why journalists operate in this way. We need historical analysis to tell us whether the press has actually become more powerful, more inaccurate, and more irresponsible. Only with this wider perspective can we come up with realistic solutions.

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Echoes of the past

It is striking, after all, how much contemporary critiques echo those that have been made in the past. Ever since a modern popular press developed in the mid-nineteenth century, in the form of cheap Sunday newspapers such as Lloyd's Weekly News and the News of the World, it has drawn scorn from educated commentators. Victorian moralists attacked the lurid press coverage of proceedings of divorce cases and murder trials. Matthew Arnold famously described the 'New Journalism' of the 1880s as 'feather-brained': 'It throws out assertions at a venture because it wishes them true; does not correct either them or itself, if they are false; and to get at the seat of things as they truly are seems to feel no concern whatever'. When a popular daily press emerged after Alfred Harmsworth's launch of the Daily Mail in 1896, there was a similar wave of ridicule and contempt. Lord Salisbury, the Conservative Prime Minister, dismissed the Mail as 'a newspaper produced by office-boys for office-boys'. There were similar attitudes on the left: Keir Hardie, the Labour leader, lamented that 'A snippety press and a sensational public are outstanding marks of modern times'.

It was during the inter-war period that the popular press achieved a social reach and importance comparable to today. By the end of the 1930s, about 70% of the population regularly read a daily paper, and almost everyone saw a Sunday paper. Concerns about the power wielded by the so-called 'press barons' such as Lords Beaverbrook and Rothermere, and about the irresponsibility of the newspapers they owned, resulted in the production of several detailed surveys of the market. The first of real significance, the Report on the British Press, was published in 1938 by the policy organisation Political and Economic Planning (PEP). The authors were concerned that 'a dangerous tendency has recently been manifesting itself by which entertainment ceases to be ancillary to news and either supersedes it or absorbs it'. Many people, they observed, 'welcome a newspaper that under the guise of presenting news, enables them to escape from the grimness of actual events and the effort of thought by opening the backdoor of triviality and sex appeal'. Such readers, they feared, were left ill-informed and unable to participate intelligently in political debate. The report detailed concerns about accuracy - 'the general accuracy of the Press is comparatively low by scientific or administrative standards' - and about intrusion, which had 'led to considerable public indignation against sections of the press'. PEP recommended the formation of a Press Tribunal to address complaints, and a Press Institute to provide 'the continuous scientific study of the Press'.

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Overmighty subjects?

Controlling papers that could reach millions of readers, Northcliffe, Rothermere and Beaverbrook felt fully justified in intervening brazenly and dramatically in politics to pursue their 'anti-waste' and anti-socialist agenda. The political aspirations of these 'press barons' went much further than those of contemporary proprietors and editors, and their activities were often far more open and direct. Perhaps the most notorious example came days before the 1924 general election when Rothermere's Daily Mail gave huge publicity to the Zinoviev letter - a provocative forgery purportedly written by the head of the Communist International to British activists - in a bid to discredit the Labour Party. But the vitriol was not directed solely at the left. Beaverbrook and Rothermere regularly lambasted Stanley Baldwin, the Conservative Party leader, and, after the 1929 general election, attempted to undermine his leadership via an 'Empire Free Trade' crusade. They used their papers to launch and support a United Empire Party which put up opponents against Conservative party candidates in crucial by-elections. This vigorous campaign provided the occasion for Baldwin's famous speech, condemning the press barons for exercising 'power without responsibility'. Although Baldwin survived, it later became clear that the press had pushed him to the verge of resignation.

The crusades of Beaverbrook and Rothermere were premised on the belief that the power of readers, mobilized by the popular newspapers, could challenge and even overwhelm the party machines. By the end of the inter-war period, it was clear that such ambitions were unrealistic. When Cecil King, the Chairman of the Daily Mirror, showed signs of trying to imitate his predecessors with his virulent attacks on Harold Wilson in 1968, he was ousted from the organisation. Nevertheless, attempts to influence parties and to direct readers in particular political directions continued to be pursued by the press with as much enthusiasm as before. Hugh Cudlipp, the editorial director of the Mirror Group, believed that the Mirror's 'Vote for Him' campaign in 1945 was responsible for turning a 'very comfortable Labour victory into a Labour landslide', and was similarly convinced that the paper's efforts in 1964 made the difference between success and victory for the party.

Moreover, the activities of these earlier press barons came at a time when there were far fewer alternative sources of political information than there are now. Indeed, the 1920s press was strong enough to ensure that restrictions were placed upon what the new medium of BBC radio broadcasting could provide in the way of news - restrictions that were only gradually relaxed during and after the Second World War. In contrast, most people in contemporary Britain have access not only to the press and radio, but also to regular television news bulletins (including twenty-four hour news channels for those with digital or satellite equipment) and the vast resources of the internet. If newspaper columnists shout loudly, it is partly because they fear being drowned out by the noise of a crowded media marketplace. Media audiences of all types are fragmenting, and the 'power' (however that is measured) of individual publications and programmes is increasingly uncertain.

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Declining political coverage?

Posters advertising the first issue of the Daily Mail in 1896 announced that 'Four leading articles, a page of Parliament and columns of speeches will NOT be found in the Daily Mail', as the paper defined itself against weighty Victorian journalism. This Victorian journalism should not be idealized: as the PEP Report of 1938 recognised, most papers of that period were 'suitable only for those who could retire to their clubs at four o'clock and spend two or three hours in digesting it'. The Daily Mirror further reduced its coverage of politics when it sought to reach a broad working-class audience from the mid-1930s. The Royal Commission found that in 1937 the Mirror devoted four times as much space to sports than it did to 'serious' news about politics, society, and the economy. Although the Mirror under Cecil King and Hugh Cudlipp has rightly been admired for its crusading on social issues, the amount of current affairs that the paper contained should not be exaggerated. Writing to Cudlipp in 1943, King recognised that the increasing provision of news by radio would mean that the popular press would have to concentrate on the 'simple human kind of story': 'I am not arguing that instruction should not be given,' he continued, 'but that our main function is, and is likely to remain, entertainment'. The drama of politics inevitably came to the fore at election time, but it tended to be shuffled off stage fairly quickly thereafter. As television broadcasters started to develop attractive news bulletins, it was inevitable that political material would be further marginalized.

The decline of foreign-affairs coverage has been a similarly extended process. Northcliffe, ever alert to the dangers of giving his readers what they did not want, told the Daily Mail staff in June 1919 that too much space was being devoted to the post-war peacemaking conferences: 'What the public wanted this morning was more of the horses. They are not talking about St Germain, but about Epsom'. Readership surveys of the 1930s found foreign politics to be one of the least-liked categories of news, especially among women, and as a result many newspapers underplayed the deepening international crisis. Beaverbrook ensured that the Express did not dwell on the 'gloomy' news from Europe, and while the Mirror took a more robust approach to the threat from Germany, Hugh Cudlipp cheerfully admitted that 'as a general rule...day-to-day developments in international affairs received scant attention'. The experience of the Second World War and the coming of the Cold War did not seem to generate a new enthusiasm for international reporting. Ian Fleming, the manager of the Sunday Times foreign affairs bureau, was realistic about what could be offered to a popular audience. Writing in 1949 he observed that 'the allergy of our island people to what happens "abroad" requires that foreign news shall be presented with particular skill...[the reader] is not interested in even the simplest political facts about those countries which are not at war with him'.

The belligerent patriotism and casual racism that have been recurring features of much of the popular press are a direct consequence of this reluctance to offer detailed reporting from abroad or to examine the complexities of foreign affairs. Nations apparently threatening British 'interests' have frequently been demonised. The virulence of the Daily Mail's anti-German sentiment before 1914 led to the liberal paper The Star claiming that 'next to the Kaiser, Lord Northcliffe has done more than any living man to bring about the war'. This hostility was only deepened by the war and press demands for full retribution from the 'Hun' after the Armistice encouraged Lloyd George to harden his position in the peace negotiations - with fateful consequences. The Mail repeatedly emphasised the importance of protecting the nation from dangerous foreign influences. In December 1918 it declared that Britain needed 'rigid new immigration laws to keep out undesirables' and demanded that Germans in Britain should be expelled. After 1945, Soviet infiltrators and black immigrants from the Commonwealth became the new threat for the conservative press. The current obsession of some newspapers with the dangers of immigration needs to be placed in this long-term context. Narrow definitions of Britishness and a suspicion of foreigners have become entrenched in many popular newspapers. While the enemies have changed across the century, underlying attitudes often remained very similar.

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A new culture of celebrity?

Many current tendencies are the logical extension of Northcliffe's dictum that the popular press should always tell the news through people because 'people are so much more interesting than things'. The spectacular growth of the daily press in the inter-war years owed something to the simultaneous rise of cinema, and editors moved quickly to satisfy public curiosity about the stars of the silver screen. Indeed the Royal Commission on the Press noted with distaste in 1949 that many papers presented 'the matrimonial adventures of a film star as though they possessed the same intrinsic importance as events affecting the peace of a continent'. During the 1950s the cultivation of glamorous actresses explicitly as 'sex symbols' developed apace, and titillating pictures of Marilyn Monroe, Brigitte Bardot, and Jayne Mansfield were hard to escape; indeed, in September 1957, the Daily Mirror devoted its front-page to discussing whether the 'celebrity bosom' had become over-exposed and too familiar. By the end of the decade a market had also developed for sensational revelations about the sexual exploits of Hollywood stars, heralded by The People paying £40,000 in 1959 to serialise Errol Flynn's memoirs, My Wicked, Wicked Life. When the News of the World hit back the following year by spending £36,000 on the rights to Diana Dors's autobiography, a new era of competition for celebrity scandal had dawned. With resources of this magnitude being devoted to securing such serialisations, inevitably there was less to be spent on 'heavy' news.

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Problems of contemporary journalism

The aim of providing this historical context is not to excuse the excesses of the popular press, or to suggest that there is nothing wrong with contemporary journalism. There are indeed serious causes for concern. Nevertheless, we must be realistic about what we can expect from popular newspapers. They have prospered for so long because they have been able to judge their market, and because they have adapted to a changing media landscape. It might be argued that editors have at times underestimated public interest in politics, but it inescapable that millions of readers genuinely do have an appetite for the diet of human interest, crime and celebrity stories that newspapers have provided, and continue to provide. After all, newspaper readership in Britain has for a long time been higher per head than almost any other comparable country. As radio and then television started to provide comprehensive news services, it was inevitable that the press would increase its reliance on entertainment. However, a more accurate historical context does allow us to identify three more specific problems with contemporary popular journalism which have been evident for decades but have recently become more pressing.

Firstly, there has been, and remains, a lack of diversity in the newsrooms, especially in positions of power. Although Northcliffe was pioneering in the importance he placed on reaching out to female readers, the dominance of men in Fleet Street ensured the persistence of patronising attitudes to women. This is most evident in the pin-up culture that developed apace from the 1930s and reached its apotheosis in the Sun's 'page three girl'. Although in the last two decades more women have entered journalism and more have attained positions of power, they have found it difficult to shift practices that are now deeply entrenched. Rebekah Wade, editor of the Sun since January 2003, has not dropped the increasingly anachronistic 'page three girl', despite signs that she privately opposes it: executives fear, apparently, that abandoning the feature would mean losing an essential part of the paper's identity, a key element of its brand. Popular newspapers have also been slow to recruit from ethnic minorities, and this has contributed to the frequent crudeness of their coverage of other races and religions. Indeed, there has been a widespread failure to recognise that the trenchant editorial voice developed over many decades can often be inappropriate now that the media is increasingly expected to embrace diversity and demonstrate sensitivity towards minorities of all kinds. The Sun's hurried retraction of its 'Bonkers Bruno' headline in September 2003, when the former boxer Frank Bruno was taken to a mental health clinic, provides a case in point.

The second problem is the tendency to prize speed and short-term impact over accuracy and reliability. This is, of course, to some extent inevitable in a daily operation in which time is limited and there is intense competition to beat rivals to eye-catching stories. The Royal Commission of 1949 lamented the 'extreme importance' attached to breaking new stories and the associated 'willingness to be satisfied with what at best corresponds only roughly to the truth'. In some respects, however, this tendency has worsened. Cost-cutting and the slimming of editorial teams has led to the decline of the specialist in many popular papers. Larry Lamb, the first editor of the Murdoch Sun, did not see the value of specialisation and described how he cut it 'to an absolute minimum' in the 1970s; papers like the Express and the Star have taken this to new levels in recent years. The loss of expertise increases the likelihood of events being misinterpreted or their importance exaggerated; journalists writing beyond their field of knowledge inevitably make mistakes. Even where there is no lack of experience, the pressure of competition in a crowded media environment has led to papers making tendentious claims for an eye-catching headline; desperate to find a 'point of difference' from 24-hour television news, newspapers often speculate on events rather than report them. When such stories are found to be inaccurate, public trust in the press understandably wanes.

The third problem, which underlies the other two, is the complacency and lack of self-criticism that has characterised and continues to characterise, popular journalism. As was noted by PEP in 1938, and by the Royal Commission in 1949, editors and journalists have generally been trained to compete fiercely in the battle for stories without reflecting on their wider social responsibilities. Quick to defend the 'freedom of the press', they have resisted and ridiculed attempts at regulation. The Press Council that was established in 1953 to regulate journalism never obtained the respect of the industry. Beaverbrook was 'very much against it' even before it had been established; Hugh Cudlipp described it in 1962 as 'an exercise in futility'; Larry Lamb declared that it was 'an absurd body' that never 'had any effect whatever on what The Sun said or did'. The Press Council was reconstituted as the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) in 1991, and this new regulator has done more to make its presence felt. It has built up a body of case-law around a Code of Practice and made it available as a handbook. Nevertheless, as one media critic has recently observed, press behaviour in recent years suggests 'that the Code has not really entered the industry's bloodstream', partly because the PCC has no means of enforcing its decisions. Meanwhile, public respect for newspaper journalists continues to deteriorate.

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Conclusions

The challenge for popular journalism is to reconcile its competitive edge with a greater accountability and sense of public service. Proprietors, editors and journalists all have a responsibility to be more critical about their practices rather than merely following the 'received wisdom' of their predecessors. The steady decline in sales indicates a need for a re-evaluation. There is a clear need for a public debate about the future direction of popular journalism, and in this sense, the Media Institute proposed by John Lloyd and Demos is useful. This paper has argued, however, that such a debate needs to be historically informed if it is to develop constructive proposals. Indeed, our understanding of contemporary journalism would be greatly improved if more press history were written - but historians continue to be hindered by the lack of access provided by many newspapers to their editorial archives. At a time when much of the press is lambasting the government for its handling of the Freedom of Information Act, it should recognise its own responsibility to offer transparency. The PCC should also follow suit by making its deliberations accessible.

The experience of the past century suggests, however, that the press is unlikely to engage in a searching self-examination without some external prompting. There are, after all, already countless books now available on media ethics, catering for the proliferation of courses in media and journalism studies. In this sense, a healthy, if slightly restricted, debate does exist - but it has had a limited impact in the newsroom. The threat of a privacy law, emerging from the European Convention of Human Rights and the recent ruling in favour of Princess Caroline of Monaco, has certainly caused some editors to stop and think. A better alternative, however, would be to strengthen further the institutions of self-regulation. The PCC should police the Code of Practice far more actively and rigorously, rather than simply responding to complaints when they come in. The PCC will only be taken seriously, furthermore, if it can punish in some meaningful way those editors and journalists who flout the Code, and ensure that corrections and apologies are printed promptly. If no other sanctions can be found, a system of fines for serious offences may have to be developed. Only when regulation is toughened will the discussions about ethics, and the related issues of training, qualifications, and pay, be taken seriously.

May 2005

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Further reading

  • D. G. Boyce, 'Crusaders without chains: power and the press barons 1896-1951' in J. Curran, A. Smith and P. Wingate, (eds.), Impacts and Influences: Essays on Media Power in the Twentieth Century (London: Methuen, 1987).
  • J. Curran and J. Seaton, Power Without Responsibility: The Press and Broadcasting in Britain (London: Routledge, 2003).
  • R. Greenslade, Press Gang: How Newspapers make Profits from Propaganda (London: Macmillan, 2003).
  • M. Jempson and R. Cookson, (eds), Satisfaction Guaranteed? Press Complaints Systems under Scrutiny (Bristol: Mediawise, 2004).
  • J. Lloyd, What the Media Are Doing to our Politics (London: Constable, 2004).
  • T. O'Malley and C. Soley, Regulating the Press (London: Pluto Press, 2000).
  • MediaGuardian website provides a good record of recent debates.
  • O. O'Neill, Reith Lectures 2002, No.5, 'Licence to Deceive'.
  • Political and Economic Planning, Report on the British Press (London: PEP, 1938).

Further information on some of the groups active in this area is available from the following websites:

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About the author

Adrian Bingham is a British Academy Post-Doctoral Fellow at the Centre for Contemporary British History, Institute of Historical Research. He has recently published a book entitled Gender, Modernity, and the Popular Press in Inter-War Britain (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004). He is currently working on a history of the British popular press's coverage of sex and private life, 1918-78.

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