The Decline of the Press

I sometimes suspect that most Brits assume that their press is normal, and that foreign newspapers must be much the same. Nothing could be further from the truth. I buy newspapers in most of the many countries I travel through; few of them have a ‘tabloid’ tradition like ours. Swedish tabloids – evening papers – can be sensational, and of course focus on celebrity, like ours; but none of them peddles lies or pornography, or acts so blatantly as propaganda vehicles for the political causes favoured by their rich owners. It must be for that reason that Britain features only 40th in the prestigious Reporters Without Borders’ World ‘Press Freedom Index’, which will surprise those who take pride – false pride, as it happens – in our ‘press liberty’ (see Foreigners are genuinely shocked by our newspapers. This is one of the major factors contributing to Britain’s generally low reputation in the world.

The decline of the British press began in the 1890s, when Alfred Harmsworth founded the Daily Mail as a purely capitalist venture; that is, according to ‘market’ principles, in order simply to satisfy a demand. As I’ve written in my Britannia’s Burden:

If that demand was for sport, gossip and sensation, then that was what the Mail would provide. It would not preach to people, or try to stretch them, which would be elitist and arrogant. Everything in the paper had to be attractive, exciting and easy to swallow. “Do not forget,” Daily Mail journalists were told, “that you are writing for the meanest intelligence.” These were the main journalistic criteria, not ‘truth’, which came a very poor fourth. For Harmsworth himself the overriding criterion was profitability. Because the Mail’s editorial line [at this time] was usually imperialistic, some people saw him as having a political aim. In fact a “famous Englishman” (unnamed) was probably nearer the mark when he described him in 1901 as… “only a tradesman speculating in the reaction”. The “yellow press” in other words was a product not of the political but of the commercial morality of the day.

The Harmsworth (Northcliffe) family, of course, still owns the Daily Mail. You’ll already know about the more recent low points in its history, including its backing for Hitler in the 1930s. In this connection I recommend Andrew O’Hagan’s eviscerating demolition of the present editor, Paul Dacre, in a recent LRB: The word ‘cunt’ there gives you a clue.

So it didn’t all start with Murdoch, though he managed to pull his share of the press much further down the road to hell. The Times is the most obvious of his casualties, not because it’s the worst in his stable (that’s the Sun), but because it’s the one that has fallen from the greatest height. It used to be Britain’s ‘newspaper of record’; it’s no longer trusted as such. I imagine it has been replaced in that role by the Guardian, which is far more often quoted abroad.

The Guardian, in fact, is our only national daily quality left wingish paper, and so is something for us Lefties to be grateful for. But just at the moment few of us are. That’s because it does not provide quite the weight on the other side of the scales that some of us would like, in order to balance things up. The Guardian of course started out as a Liberal Manchester paper, but as the Liberal Party declined (in the early 20th century) it adopted a more generally Leftish slant. It was, and I imagine still is, the paper of choice for up-market Labourites. (The Mirror is the down-market equivalent.) But then we Lefties have no alternative among daily papers; which is what had most of us despairing of it before and during the recent General Election campaign. The dismissal by most of the Guardian’s columnists of Jeremy Corbyn was ignorant, as it turned out, and patronizing. It only U-turned and backed him at the very last moment: As far as I was concerned, this was far too late. I feel angrier towards the Guardian, in fact, than I do towards the awful tabloids. At least one can understand sheer villainy. If the Independent had still been going as a newspaper – it’s on-line only now – I’d have switched over to it. (I need a broadsheet, rather than a laptop, to eat my breakfast off.)

Here’s a very good analysis of the Guardian’s backsliding, by an ex-Guardian journalist: As a current Guardian journalist myself – well, reviewer – I’m hoping the paper catches up with the new reality soon. The true Left needs an organ.

Or does it, in the age of ‘social media’? Print newspaper circulations are declining. The Guardian is always appealing to its readers for donations. (I’ve contributed, despite my irritation with it. I need my table cloth.) Apparently the Tory press has met its match at last, not from a new Left-wing newspaper, but with Facebook, Twitter and the rest. The intelligent young read computer screens, not newspapers. Which, unwelcome as it may be to an old breakfaster like me, is great news if it means that the influence of the likes of Murdoch, Dacre, the Barclay Brothers and Desmond is shrivelling under the computer’s flickering glare.

About bernardporter2013

Retired academic, author, historian.
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6 Responses to The Decline of the Press

  1. How is your convalescence going, Bernard? No word as yet on your impressions of the NHS.


    • Slow but fine, thanks, Philip. I think I was treated in a sheltered part of the NHS; no stress so far as I could see. I was surprised when they painted a great blue arrow on my belly pointing at my navel. I’d have thought that they’d have learned where the belly-button is quite early in their medical training.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. What is it about the Anglosphere that renders it so vulnerable to tabloid exploitation?


  3. TJ says:

    Neither does the New Staesman offer much solace for left-wing readers. Under its current editor (an ex-Murdoch man from The Times) it claims to be ‘liberal and sceptical’. It was certainly sceptical about Corbyn’s leadership with weekly onslaughts against him personally and his programme. Long ago the NS represented the socialist conscience, and was required reading for the educated middle classes whether socialist or not, and its circulation was huge between the 1930s and 60s. This week it hasn’t even had the grace to apologise for its efforts to undermine Corbyn and for getting the result so wrong.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. colinelliott says:

    I recommend as an alternative to the Guardian.

    Liked by 1 person

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