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What happened to Britain’s ruthless tabloids?

Staff of the News of the World Editor, with editor Colin Myler in the centre, hold up copies of the last ever edition of the paper, in July 2011 - Credit: Getty Images

It’s a decade since the demise of the News of the World and today’s toothless tabloids are a shadow of their former ferocious selves. Should we mourn or celebrate their decline? And could they have stopped Brexit? 

They were the cheeky chappies, rumbustious and irreverent, saucier than a Donald McGill postcard; always game to poke the pompous and stand up to the high and mighty, but with a smile on their faces and gold in their hearts. Whatever happened to our redtops?

The 21st century happened. It snuck up on them while they were still drinking in – or, in the case of the Mirror, spitting out – the excesses of the 80s. And when they woke up from the 90s hangover, the world had moved on and left them behind.

Desperate to catch up, they turned to desperate measures: phone hacking, blagging, bribery and using private detectives to spy on people. Like the print unions they had ousted a generation before, they behaved as though they were invincible. But they weren’t and, just as with those unions, their arrogance was the root of their downfall.

Ten years ago this week, the News of the World appeared for the last time. The quintessence of redtop journalism (even though it was the last to acquire a coloured titlepiece), it had been the biggest-selling paper in the world, built on staples of sex, scandal and sport. And once the king of the jungle had been slaughtered, the smaller beasts lost their bite – and with it most of their readers. Should we celebrate or mourn their demise?

The redtops in their heyday may have been brash and titillating and sensational, but they also told the stories that mattered in a language the readers understood. They presented the news first and gave their opinions afterwards. They explained political events, they exposed criminality, and they campaigned against injustice. They had a clear view not only of what readers wanted to know, but what they needed to know; of what was important, if dull, and what was interesting – and how to strike the balance between the two.

Editors today would claim that they still adhere to all those values. But their products have gone from being popular to populist. They are written not in the language people use, but in journalese and clichés that appear nowhere other than in print or in slogans generated from Downing Street. Where strident opinionated headlines were once for special, momentous, occasions, now they are standard fare for the splash and spattered throughout inside as well. Readers aren’t being given information and allowed to form an opinion, they are told what to think.

But the biggest change is the perception of what news is. Informing readers has been subjugated to entertaining them – and the “entertainment” usually comes courtesy of some rival platform: TV, music, sport. Instead of writing about real people in interesting situations, the redtops became fixated on celebrities. A drowning industry clutching at straws from the very sectors pushing it under, in a frantic attempt to stay afloat.

Meanwhile, all the “important” is consigned to a square box on page two – unless there’s a political axe to grind. Take Brexit, for example. The Sun pulled out all the stops to persuade its readers to vote to leave the EU. For three months, day-in, day-out, the message was hammered home. Meanwhile, the Mirror went AWOL. Seemingly afraid of turning off its readers or confused by finding itself on the same side as a Tory prime minister, it restricted referendum coverage to that box on page two, preferring to focus on sick children, old criminals or Madeleine McCann on the front. 

And then, at the last minute, it produced a front page, almost as a “by the way”, suggesting that readers vote Remain. If the paper had been their sole source of information they might not even have known there was a ballot in the offing. Such dereliction would have been unthinkable in the days of Hugh Cudlipp, Tony Miles, Mike Molloy – or even Piers Morgan.

There is still campaigning, and some of it goes beyond “clap for carers” and “buy a poppy” to making lifesaving drugs available to sick children (the Mirror, of course). But where, in the past, the objective of the campaign was in the forefront, now the masthead is front and centre because it’s all about “me, me, me”. And they criticise the wokerati for virtual signalling!

How did all this happen? It wasn’t just the News of the World that died in July 2011; the whole redtop world changed. Papers were already struggling through being too slow to get to grips with the internet; now they were burdened with huge compensation bills for phone hacking that had a knock-on effect on editorial budgets, slashing funds available for getting stories. Proper journalism is expensive.

And while Hacked Off still points to questionable news values, Leveson forced papers to clean up their act and abandon dodgy practices. The much-maligned social media also plays a big part. Editors who used to work by gut instinct now have too much information. They know exactly what people are looking at and exactly what they think of what they’re looking at.

Fearful of Twitter pile-ons and upsetting the woke, they no longer lead, but follow the crowd. Clickbait rules. And it’s cheap. Just take what you’re given – whether it’s from the prime minister or some celeb’s PR.

One of the most alarming things to come out of the mouth of an editor in recent times was the Sun’s Victoria Newton telling Radio 4’s Media Show that she was “on very good terms with lots of celebrities and their agents”. Whatever happened to keeping a distance and remaining neutral?

But hang on a minute, why was she on the programme at all? Oh yes, that Matt Hancock exclusive. Didn’t that prove that rumours of the demise of proper redtop journalism were premature? Or was it a death rattle? Did Newton even understand what she held in her hands? 

The five pages of Day One coverage were all about the “clinch” in the office “as the pandemic raged on”. But this wasn’t a standard story about a minister being caught with his trousers down; it was about the man who imposed social distancing on the country flagrantly failing to keep his distance even in the workplace; the man who said Neil Ferguson was right to resign for seeing his lover in lockdown thinking he could behave even more badly and keep his job.

The connection simply wasn’t made; the words “social distancing” were nowhere. A week later, an attack on Angela Rayner showed the Sun still hadn’t grasped that this wasn’t about sex, but about Hancock’s hypocrisy and cronyism in employing Gina Coladangelo in the first place.

And what of the rest? If the redtops had a future, they’d have been digging for further examples of “one rule for them”, they’d have been on the case of Lord Bethell and his chumocracy, they’d have been documenting the law-breaking that has characterised the response to the pandemic. Instead they doorstepped Hancock’s hapless wife.

Even with England about to play football, they’d have dug into the Michael Gove marriage split – instead of a page 9 lead based entirely on the couple’s press release. Kelvin MacKenzie would never have flinched as editor of the Sun, and he didn’t flinch on Twitter – accusing his old paper and its rivals of dodging the story because Gove was a “Mate of Murdoch”. Only the Telegraph raised questions about the couple’s living arrangements and whether, here too, there had been breaches of Covid rules. 

Of course we know that Gove is Murdoch’s man and Johnson is the Telegraph’s man. There is more at play here than news values. But when the Telegraph leads the way on a story like that, you know the redtops are in trouble.

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