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Tabloid Culture

2011 September 1
by Paul Vallely

I once worked for a tabloid, in the days when that word told you more than just the physical size of a newspaper but conveyed something significant about its attitude to life and to journalism. It was by no means an uninformative experience. Tabloids taught me that people are more important than principles (though not of course than profits in the unarticulated proprietorial worldview), but the rightness of people before principles and profits was a lesson Jesus taught too. Like him tabloids also understand that story is the most potent vehicle for conveying truths about the world.

Tabloids taught me the importance of appearances. “You’re not going dressed like that are you?” a tabloid executive once said, glancing scornfully at the tweed jacket which had always been deemed adequate during my apprenticeship in the more staid environs of the Yorkshire Post. “Go and buy a new suit and put it on your expenses.”

And they also taught me how to harass people, and how to lie professionally. I was once sent to doorstep the widow of disgraced celebrity. She was a decent woman who politely but firmly told me to go away, which I of course immediately did. When I rang into the newsdesk to report this I was told to go back and ask again. Being a diligent chap I did; and she, having had experience of tabloids, promptly told me that she had said No and that I should go, adding, having had extensive experience of tabloids, that she would set the dogs on me if I returned. This seemed to me pretty emphatic, not to say definitive. I went and told the newsdesk.

For the next two hours a pattern was established with the desk in London repeatedly instructing me to return to her front door with new gambits, and me sitting in the photographer’s car for 15 minutes (the photographer had actually seen the dogs) before returning to the phone and announcing that our victim was still uncooperative.  Each time my instructions were ratcheted up; I should entreat her, implore her, cajole her and threaten her with the fact that we would be printing something anyway and it would jolly well be better for her if she “put her side of the story”.

But tabloids also taught me you do not have to lie to tell a good tale. I was sent to Switzerland to interview the nurse who had cared for David Niven in his final days as he was dying of motor neurone disease and came back with a poignant tale of how the famous actor had taken the young woman to a favourite place in the Alps where the edelweiss would appear in the spring and asked her to return there to see them when he was dead. “Great, David Niven’s last lover,” the over-excited features editor responded, as ever anxious to fit external reality into the prescribed view of the world as conceived at a desk in London.  No, I said. “Yes but you could write it like that.  It’s what the Editor will want.” Tell him I won’t, I said; it’s a great story anyway.  The features editor stormed off to see the Editor, and returned chastened: “The Editor says it’s alright, you don’t have to make anything up.”

Making things up is commonplace in certain kinds of journalism.  And it’s not just confined to the tabloids or the transfer tattle of the sports pages. Foreign correspondents know which of their colleagues always seems to get the best stories or quotes when there are no other journalists around. Johann Hari, a polemical left-wing journalist on my own newspaper, The Independent, is currently undergoing an internal investigation over claims that he has embellished, invented, distorted and plagiarised. He denies the charges.

Certainly it is not the dubious prerogative of right-wing tabloids to attempt to tidy up reality to fit in with their ideological preconceptions. Nor is it just dodgy journalists who want to see reality twisted to fit their insistence on how the world is; many readers seem happy only to read newspapers which force humanity into the pre-set of their political prejudices. Some writers even insist that a little lie is no big deal in pursuit of some greater philosophical truth. That’s a dubious means-justify-the-ends argument. But it does a greater disservice than to journalistic ethics.

It insults reality. The real world is a gloriously messier place than that. Part of the joy of reporting is that you go out and encounter people who constantly surprise you with their inconsistency and impossible combination of narrow-minds and open-hearts. And their wacky creativity. I remember an old man who, in my days as a cub reporter in Leeds, said to me of a massive blaze in a factory “it were like Dante’s inferno”.

You couldn’t make that up. Nor the young single mothers at a wonderful Barnardo’s project in Blackpool who had never heard of David Cameron a month before he was elected prime minister – and who said that the main election issue for them was why you could get two push-chairs on some buses but only one on others, which meant waiting half an hour for the next one. Nor the woman in Carlisle who told me she wouldn’t normally have anything to do with racists like the BNP but was voting for them because their candidate was a nice chap who had fitted her gas fire.

Reporting is great fun because it constantly shatters your preconceptions. The idea that awkward-shaped authenticity can be shoe-horned into the clichéd formulae  – political, ideological or mendaciously metaphysical – is an enormous travesty.

Of course we cannot make sense of facts or events without some interpretative theory. Perceivers without concepts, to quote Alasdair Macintyre’s summary of Kant, are blind. But perceivers who see the world through blue or rose-tinted spectacles are a problem of a far greater order at the other extreme. There are none so blind as they who will not see – or those who venture wilfully out into the world with blinkered eyes.

from Third Way

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