1990s >> 1999 >> no-1137-may-1999

What the Papers Don’t Say (1): The Tabloids

This month we begin a two-part article on the capitalist press and its relationship to capitalism and capitalist politicians.

Anyone who takes any more than a passing interest in politics will know that the various media play an important part it. In the Top 300 Most Powerful People in England, published by the Observer last year, Rupert Murdoch (a man who does not even live in England), came second after Tony Blair. Anyone who is even remotely aware of the political leanings of the newspapers in Britain will know that the tabloid press had strong Tory leanings from about 1979 to 1992 and are largely now for Labour. As regards the last general election the Sun claimed that it was “The Sun Wot Won it”. It is also common wisdom that one should not “believe everything you read in the papers”.

So we, the working class, know that the papers are powerful, that they are political, that they deal in distortions of the truth. And yet, the overwhelming majority of us read the tabloid press. So why do we seemingly have an appetite for the lies and distortions of the popular press? Do we realise just how “unfree” our press actually is?

Although it is not the newspapers’ job to tell the truth, they are not particularly there to tell lies either (though they do when the occasion demands). They exist, as does anything else in capitalism, to make profits for their owners.

When Murdoch broke the unions in 1986 by moving his entire operation to Wapping overnight, he began to refer to the newspapers of his News International stable as his “cash cows” (Jeremy Tunstall, The New National Press in Britain, p. 26). Piers Morgan, the sometime editor of the News of the World and now the “responsible” editor of the Daily Mirror, explained the situation very clearly: “I only judge a story on what sells and what doesn’t” (Guardian, 30 November 1996). It is this element of the media that makes it at one and the same time the capitalists’ friend, and also their enemy. The forces that generate the kind of copy we see in Britain and in other national papers around the globe are the same forces which also undermine governments’ attempts to censor or to manipulate the media. Try censorship who dares: the media is a savage animal and it can bite your hand off.  

Before the mid-1960s the British press was relatively well behaved (from the point of view of the government). One reason for this was a hangover from the Second World War when newspapers were effectively self-censoring. Another important reason why the press did not attack governments as vitriolically as is the norm today was the widely held belief that in doing so you would inevitably alienate the section of your readership which supported the party you were attacking. Although certain papers have been readily identifiable as having certain leanings for some time, they have always had a significant minority who read the paper whilst voting “the other way”.

The huge change in this view came when the Murdoch/News International group made the discovery in the 1980s that you could take an extreme anti-Labour stance whilst retaining millions of Labour voters as readers. This was done in a number of ways, such as rationing overt politics to one page of the paper (where the regular reader could avoid it) and by attacking currently unpopular and unsuccessful Tory Ministers. In this respect the Sun was entirely in the pocket of Margaret Thatcher. Larry Lamb was the editor of the Sun during the early Thatcher era, and he was rewarded with a knighthood for his services to Margaret Thatcher during the 1979 election campaign, along with John Junor of the Sunday Express and David English of the Daily Mail. Together, they made sure that pictorial coverage of Margaret Thatcher was six times greater than that of the Prime Minister James Callaghan, and who focused upon her in an increasingly presidential way. In the same way today Tony Blair receives almost ten times more coverage than the Tory leader (has anything to do with Blair’s new cosy relationship with Murdoch?).

In the 1980s the tabloids made sure that the uncommitted voter received no informed election coverage. And it was they who generated the much-talked about “Maggie factor”.

What happened to Margaret Thatcher was entirely new. Whilst the press had in the past focused upon Lloyd George, Ramsay MacDonald, and especially Winston Churchill during the Second World War, the presidential style of Thatcher’s campaign was something entirely new in British politics. Her personal approval rating was always well above that of her party throughout her time in office (excluding the Poll Tax years). Throughout the 1980s the tabloid press went in for constant and consistently noisome brown-nosing which cemented Thatcher in the public mind.

This is not to argue for a kind of press-in-the-pocket-of-the-government conspiracy theory. This is not the case. The press is not necessarily in the pocket of the government; though the way they all climbed into Mrs. Thatcher’s handbag in the 80s, and Tony Blair’s trousers in the 90s might lead you to suspect otherwise. Recently we have seen how the press can bite the hand that feeds it.

When Thatcher was ousted, her replacement (John Major) was attacked vitriolically by the then Sun political columnist Richard Littlejohn (he is now a dreadful broadcaster). He was ferociously critical of John Major, indeed with the Tory government as a whole. He accused Major of being a political sleepwalker. “When you open your eyes you will find you are Prime Minister”, he wrote in December 1992. As keenly as the Tory press brown-nosed to Margaret Thatcher, they attacked John Major.

Here a pattern emerges. We have already identified how the Sun vilified Tory ministers, and glorified Thatcher. Problems with policy, or, as in 1981 deep unpopularity of the government coupled with massive inner-city riots, could be ascribed to incompetent ministers. The glorious leaderine was, of course, untouchable. As a political tactic this is not new; the horrible 20th century of the Cult of the Personality, generally manifests itself in an absolution of the leader regardless of what their administration is doing.

This emphasis upon the individual has been an increasing symptom of the emptiness of capitalist politics. The emptier the politics, the bigger the personalities. It is usually explained by the simple fact that the political grandees are now more often in the limelight, and so need to be more attractive to win votes (the Kennedy factor). It is, of course, true that when the public is faced with a choice of politicians who will make little or no difference to their lives, they will chose the better-looking politician.

If, however, the politician that they were voting for was saying something which was going to make a difference to their lives, then it would not matter whether or not that politician had an ugly mug. We are not saying that Nelson Mandela has an ugly mug, but his face was for many years an almost invisible one. Did it matter what he looked like? Of course not. Opposition to a system which took away basic human rights was such a potent idea, that even as an almost invisible presence he commanded the support of the overwhelming majority of black South-Africans. However, in the absence of real politics people will vote for smooth–Tony Blair is; Michael Foot wasn’t.

Political realignment
Although we saw a swing back towards Labour in the tabloids before the last election, the Financial Times had advised the voters to vote Labour the election before that. Senior figures in the world of business were expressing a deep liking for the new Labour Party well before the last election. As has happened in the past, the capitalist class was preparing itself to do business with Labour. They have normally done reasonably well out of Labour governments, and it would appear that the current one is equally “on message” as far as the capitalists are concerned.

The media moguls are, of course, part of this circuit of capitalists who see the way that the wind is blowing and consequently take a new tack. In the newspapers this can manifest itself in a political realignment of a paper. Since the press is not really selling opinions, or thinking through political questions, but selling a product; and that in reality there is no real difference to the capitalist class between Labour and the Conservatives, then such a “realignment” becomes very easy to imagine.

In this respect the broadsheets are different from the tabloids. They rely upon advertising income and not circulation for their revenue; consequently they are more at liberty to put forward their political opinions. However, for the tabloids the picture is much more confused.

When Rupert Murdoch bought the Sun in 1969, the paper (which had previously been the Daily Herald) “voted” Labour. Now it is no secret that Rupert Murdoch and Margaret Thatcher enjoyed a great rapport during the 1980s, especially over the way that Murdoch completely destroyed the unions in his move to Wapping in 1986. However, Murdoch had to be persuaded to have his paper “vote” Tory. It was not his liking or otherwise for the Tory party that swung the day (this is neither here nor there for a capitalist like Murdoch). No, what swung the allegiance of the Sun was the fact that of the three competing downmarket tabloids, the Daily Mirror already staked out a firm, partisan pro-Labour line. This left the other two players in the market being – the Daily Star, and the Sun.

Murdoch’s rightward swing was simply a matter of market segmentation. In 1979, the Sun “voted” Tory for the very first time, subsequently the Sun executives only had to worry about the Daily Star. (They don’t any more). They dealt with the Daily Star, not in the field of political ideas (if the Sun can be credited with any actual ideas), but in the field of bingo, and they trumped all the other tabloids with the most horrifically jingoistic coverage of the Falklands War. (Who can forget: “GOTCHA”?). Politics, war, bingo: it’s all the same when you’re a capitalist media mogul.

Rupert Murdoch served his apprenticeship in an Australian paper, and he knew that apart from wars and general elections, few political or foreign stories sell extra copies of newspapers. The big exception to this was the Kennedy assassination. So his first task as the owner of the Sun was to get rid of the foreign desk. Now none of the tabloids has any kind of foreign desk, and the mid-market papers have decreased the size of their foreign press contingent significantly.

For the down-market tabloids, the capitalists have decided upon xenophobia as the main structuring element of their foreign coverage. The mid-market papers such as the Daily Mail are less xenophobic but also carry very little non-British news. Please note that at no time has it been suggested that the reading public have no appetite for foreign or political stories: that’s untested. The reason why these sections have been removed from the tabloids is that their inclusion does not increase the circulation of the paper. Why pay for expensive foreign correspondents, when you can have an equal number of readers with a staff of gossip columnists and horoscope writers?

Next month we conclude with an examination of the broadsheets.

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