Tab' bile that's hard to swallow

The radical decision of The Independent to offer readers the choice between the regular broadsheet edition and a more travel-friendly tabloid is brave in more ways than one. Doesn’t editor Simon Kelner realise that, even if the new shape boosts his paper’s sickly circulation, there are those in the trade who will cut him dead at every opportunity for dragging the Indy into the gutter? I have commented before on the snobbery towards tabloids inherent in many broadsheet journalists and others working in different areas of Medialand. How irritating for them now, when pouring scorn on the totally tabloid format that previously has been a popular paper preserve, to have constantly to exclude an Independent with exactly the same editorial content in its half-size alternative as appears in the regular big issue.

Following my criticism in Press Gazette last month of Stephen Glover and Sir Max Hastings for tabloid bashing, I caught Simon Hoggart at it in his normally excellent column in the Saturday Guardian.

The Iraq dossier, Hoggart suggested, was “turned into tabloid newspaper English” – “the tabs” don’t regard facts as having their own integrity, but are treated “like grains of wheat, puffed full of air, coated with sugar, and served up for breakfast in a brightly coloured box”. The tabloids, deep down, have a serious contempt for their readers, wrote Hoggart, without realising that sneering at five national tabloids, still bought every morning by close to 10 million members of the public, is hardly offering those readers respect.

That combined circulation figure is presumably larger now, although bearing in mind The Independent’s latest audited sales figure of 217,417, including giveaways, the introduction of its tabloid is unlikely to register on the Richter scale. But nor is the miniIndy likely to treat facts like air-filled, sugar-coated wheat grains and in future the self-appointed tabloid police must be careful to acknowledge this.

Nicky Campbell, for example, on Five Live patronisingly described namesake Alastair as having been “a good tabloid journalist”. That’s different, presumably, to “a good broadsheet journalist”, a term, come to think of it, one never hears.

It’s true that Alastair, whose colleagues mostly thought he was a firstrate operator and would remain so on whatever size paper he worked, was political editor successively of the Sunday Mirror, Daily Mirror and Today.

Tabloids all. Ergo, he was a tabloid journalist.

As is, it therefore follows, Keith Waterhouse, who began his Fleet Street career at the Daily Mirror before writing a cluster of fine novels and plays and columns for the Mirror and then the Daily Mail (another tabloid, no matter what fancy description it might conjure to distinguish itself from the common redtops).

Waterhouse; David English, who edited the tabloid Daily Sketch before chopping the broadsheet Mail in half; William Connor – Cassandra to the Mirror’s readers – and his witheringly witty colleague, show business interviewer Donald Zec; Trevor Kavanagh, as sharp a political editor as you will find anywhere but happening to grace the columns of The Sun; elegant sportswriters Ian Wooldridge, of the Mail, and the Mail on Sunday’s Patrick Collins… I could go on until teatime.

The tabloids are, and always have been, crammed with talent that could invigorate even the most arrogant of those titles referred to by Kelvin MacKenzie as the “unpopular press”.

Dennis Hackett, an admired journalist who in an eclectic career has worked for the broadsheet Daily Express, written for The Times and edited the tabloid Today, points out that looking down on the tabloids is a British aversion: it does not exist in mainland Europe and US journalists reserve their hostility for the scandal sheets sold mainly in supermarkets.

“The snooty stance of some tabloid bashers derives from the fact that none of them know a damn thing about newspaper production,” says Hackett. “They are also blind to papers such as Corriere della Sera and the bastard-sized El Pais and Le Monde, all of which are quality papers.”

Hackett recalls that many years ago there was serious talk of turning The Guardian into a tabloid. Peter Preston, then editor, concurs: “It’s true. As anybody who was around from about 1979 on will tell you, I always thought The Guardian might best survive as a quality tabloid. I’d helped El Pais and El Mundo get started and I was in tolerable thrall to the serious design and orchestration possibilities.”

Luckily for Hoggart, who probably would have turned out to be a good tabloid journalist, various problems led to the idea being ditched (although Preston introduced G2 early in the last decade and other papers’ specialised tabloid sections followed). So it is The Indy that makes history.

A final reminder for those looking down their noses at papers saddled with a collective noun nicked from the pharmaceutical industry – Messrs Burroughs, Wellcome and Co.

registered it as a trade mark in 1884, Henry Wellcome having combined the words tablet and alkaloid to describe a fizzy morning-after-thenightbefore pick-me-up they were marketing.

Of course there are tabloid excesses, but the broadsheets – combined sale of the five dailies is just over 2.5 million – are not exactly immune to sexing up or dumbing down. (If you see Lord Lucan on the top deck of a number 9 bus this morning, be sure to tell The Sunday Telegraph.) To many of them, facts are free but opinion is sacred. Hence the sort of breakfast cereal – low-fat muesli, of course, but puffed full of hot air, coated with bile and served up with a side order of sour grapes – with which Hoggart and his like are constantly force feeding the chattering classes.

Iwas going to write something about Reuters’ exit from Fleet Street, but my friend Waterhouse led his Mail column on the subject and I know when I’m licked.

Waterhouse recalled that when The Street, or the spokes from its hub, housed practically every national paper and the London offices of a plethora of regionals, each favoured a particular pub. Waterhouse, when writing his column for the Daily Mirror, frequented the White Hart, commonly known as the Stab in the Back.

It was here that the gnomish Des Lyons, chief features sub-editor and later a features executive, one night raised a glass or nine with a woman so hideously unattractive that her ugliness immediately became the talk of the department.

Lyons, clad as usual in a dark blue blazer decorated with equal amounts of cigarette ash and dandruff, protested volubly the following day that she hadn’t been that bad and Waterhouse led him back to the Stab to lend, it seemed, a sympathetic ear.

The pair had embarked on no more than their third drink when a female voice piped up from the door leading from New Fetter Lane. “Des, Des, it’s me…” Lyons turned, horrified, to be confronted by Waterhouse’s accomplice – a woman with a brown paper bag masking her head and face.

In the summer of 1999 I spent several pleasant hours in the garden of the Hampstead home of Hugo Young, interviewing the chairman of the Scott Trust for the British Journalism Review.

After a lengthy discussion on the press, this courteous Catholic told me: “I do believe in God, but sometimes I am in a state of disagreement with the Vatican.”

The Vatican is off the hook now that Hugo and his brilliant Guardian column have transferred to whatever celestial newspaper has snapped them up. God, however, is in for some rivetting debates.  Bill Hagerty is editor of British Journalism Review.

Top tabloid talent (clockwise from top left): Waterhouse, Kavanagh, Zec, Collins, English and Wooldridge

 

by Bill Hagerty

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