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Collision At The Crossroads: tabloids crash into celebrity journalism

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Andrew Calcutt

Proof Set 3, May 2012 The Reformation of Journalism

Collision At The Crossroads: tabloids crash into celebrity journalism

It had to happen. The recent shift towards the cult of personality (in journalism and wider society) was bound to collide with impersonal news reporting in the narrow, tabloid tradition. Combine this with left-of-centre hostility towards ‘the Murdoch Press’, and the conditions were ripe for the multiple pile-up which includes Hackgate, the end of the News of the World, and LevesonPlus (Lord Leveson’s inquiry plus the report of the parliamentary select committee for Culture, Media and Sport, frequent calls for media reform, etc etc).

We are constantly reminded that there were more than a few bad apples rotting in the News International barrel. But (if you’ll allow my original metaphor) ascribing the car crash to a whole fleet of journalists, is no less inadequate than putting it down to a few reckless motorists. The road is the thing. In order to explain the collision, we need to map the route leading up to it. Accordingly, this essay surveys the main approaches pursued by the two, different drivers of UK journalism since the late 1980s, and shows how they would inevitably come together, head-on.

The Tabloid Route

The tabloid road is especially demanding. The style of writing required of tabloid journalists is unusually compressed. Direct and to the point. If broadsheet newspapers sometimes take on the characteristics of a dinner party, the tabs are more like fast food. Though the results can be messy, there’s no messing about.

Tabloid style is the result of pressure to cram news into a smaller space, i.e. fewer square inches of newsprint than a broadsheet. Over time, the pressure to compress was consolidated into a distinctive tradition. Furthermore, there is less room to deviate from this tradition. Literally. Space restrictions are an additional restriction on further development. The tabloid has fewer columns in which to try out alternatives.

This means that the tabloid tradition is stronger than most. In other words, the tabs are journalism’s natural conservatives. (NB if this were a tabloid, there would be no space to make the same point ‘in other words’.) In tabloid news, even today, the journalist is still expected to write the story as if he himself does not exist, using an impersonal frame of reference which has been largely lifted from other news platforms. Where both broadsheets and the BBC would now allow or even encourage their reporters to say ‘I’, more often than not the tabloids still say ‘no’ to such usage.

There are other ways in which the ghost of Journalism Past continues to haunt the tabloids. Tabloid journalists continue to see themselves hunting quarry and capturing stories. Moreover, they expect the hunt to come to a decisive end in a key phrase or ‘killer quote’ that clinches it. Thus the Sun‘s infamous headline, ‘Gotcha!’, not only described the sinking of the General Belgrano, it also told the story of the tabloid tradition in one, deathly word. Though this headline only appeared in the paper’s first edition, three decades later the tabloids were still living the life which it symbolised.

The celebrity route

Meanwhile, the rest of the world had moved on. As early as the late 1980s, celebrity magazines put a new gloss on UK journalism. Titles such as Hello! allowed readers to download the domestic interiors of the rich and famous, thereby uploading themselves into a newly privatised culture – enacted in Thatcherite legislation; represented by the rapid rise of celebrity magazines.

Whereas in the tabloid tradition, finality is the supreme virtue (this is the story; end of), celebrity journalism has been deliberately inconclusive: in our next issue, we go inside XXX’s wardrobe; in the following issue, we will turn out her handbag, etc etc. Thus each magazine article serves only to connect the one before and the one after. In this respect, celebrity magazines anticipated the continuous flow of social media.

In the 1980s the new emphasis on celebrity also signalled a revised role for journalism, which coincided with the emergence of financial services as the UK’s ‘engine for growth’. But this was no mere coincidence. In different ways, both the rise of celebrity journalism and the expansion of financial services represented the growing role of mediating activity in a society at some distance from industrial production. When news is a ‘conversation’ and journalists its mediators, they are acting in much the same mediating capacity as their counterparts in the City; and just like the markets for fictitious capital, this kind of journalism is particularly liable to crash.

Coming to the crossroads

Celebrity magazines (early incarnation) and the iPhone (first iteration) are separated by two decades. During that time there was a considerable amount of lane-hopping between the tabloid tradition and the newly personalised form of celebrity journalism.

Although the tabs and the magz were always going to bang into each other, at first they seemed to hit it off.

The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 showed that one of the staples of modern journalism – the battle of political ideologies – was fast becoming a hollow exercise. Within the space of a few months, the world of politics was largely emptied out; and this left the tabloids in something of a vacuum. They filled it with a knowing tone of voice, partly in tune with what was then referred to as ‘the postmodern condition’, and partly a straight lift from the nudge and the wink of the music hall, which had been a formative influence on the tabloids’ original incarnation. Headlines such as ‘Freddie Starr Ate My Hamster’ were largely an aside to the audience; sorry, readership. Between the lines, the subs were saying: we know you don’t believe what you read in the papers, or what the politicians are telling you; neither do we.

In turn, this tone of voice was adopted by the next generation of celebrity magazines, epitomised in the re-vamp of Heat under its second editor, Mark Frith. Instead of the adulatory tones of Hello! and OK!, the new version of celebrity took a knowing look at celebrity itself. Once described as ‘irony in the soul’, this kind of knowingness may also be considered ‘postmodern’. Yet the new magz took the form of their postmodernism from the tabs, who had themselves resurrected it from the good old days when popular journalism was a kind of theatre, with the drama laid out on the breakfast table instead of the stage.

Having taken up the aside – the point at which the performer steps out of the action and comes to the side of the stage to address the audience, the new journalism has been running away with it ever since. Led by, but not exclusive to magazines, what was only on the side has since become central. In such media circles (as we have seen, they are intended to be circuitous), direct speech is now the default mode of address: your magazine; tell us about your life, your feelings etc. In its new-found you-and-us mode, journalism is no longer the staging of the story; instead it becomes a conversation about some personalities (celebrities) undertaken by other persons, aka journalists and ‘users’ (the people formerly known as readers). This is the point at which journalism, especially magazine journalism, segues into our current usage of social media.

So far we have shown celebrity journalism borrowing from the tabloid tradition, in such a way as to make its borrowings into something else. But there was traffic in the other direction, too. During the 1990s, tabloids became heavily indebted to the world of celebrity, especially that part of it which appears on TV. Accordingly, the boss of the Daily Mirror became a ‘celebrity tabloid editor’: Piers Morgan turned the Mirror into a celebrity-based paper and became a ‘sleb’ himself. Forced to resign after he was hoaxed (Morgan was unable to kick the tyres on a traditional tabloid ‘scoop’), he went on to be a TV personality.

But just as the magz re-made what they borrowed from the tabs, when the tabloids took up with celebrity, their tradition obliged them to treat it differently. Although they signed up to perform some of that circulating journalism in which stories need not – indeed, they had better not – come to a head, tabloid journalists could not give up the habit of trying to get the story and finish the job. Furthermore, this habit was more than a hangover from the past. Uncharacteristically removed from the tradition of popular, political journalism (deceased), uncomfortably reliant on the alien world of televised celebrity, the tabloids felt they had to hold onto something of their former selves, lest they cease to exist as a distinctive type within the print. Without the presence of the past, the tabloids would have feared even more for their future. Hence the fateful decision – more like compulsion, really – to combine the close-up on personality with the traditionally impersonal tone of hard news reporting.

Slow motion crash

It took Milly Dowler’s phone to set off the crash. On the one hand, journalists hacking into it, in search of the elusive personal detail that would somehow be conclusive; on the other hand, the dead girl’s phone symbolising the new life (ours as well as hers) comprised of countless, continuous exchanges.

The tabloid tradition, in which murder is the best story because it is the ultimate compression of human life. Versus the new journalism, which prefers illness because it is comparatively indefinite. Only now, as LevesonPlus looks set to run and run, we are asked to sit through saga of journalism’s own sickness.

In the current case notes, some positive aspects of news reporting have been misdiagnosed as morbid symptoms; even the ambition to ‘nail the story’ comes in for a bad press. But we do not have to sit on our hands. Although the crash was going to happen in some shape or form, we are not condemned to watch the sequence again and again without protest. Even if it did become distorted, we should still celebrate the tabloid ambition to get the definitive story, and define it in the shortest, simplest terms. Having allowed the tabloid tradition to be corrupted, we will have to find new ways of meeting those terms; but they are worth holding out for, nonetheless.

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