What have the tabloids done for us lately? Plenty

Tabloid editor-turned-professor Roy Greenslade has taken a serious chunk out of the hand that once fed him. In a lecture at City University, where the former Mirror boss is now chair of journalism, he laid relentlessly into the popular newspaper market, reflecting a view shared, apparently, by “the vast majority of the population”.

They’ve lost the plot, he said.

They don’t seek to inform their readers. They don’t try to be fair. They don’t tell the truth. They set out to mislead and distort. They are negative, pessimistic and appeal to readers’ emotions rather than their intellect. They play to the gallery. They whip up the mob. They appeal to the basest of human instincts.

They reinforce people’s fears. They constrain debate by narrowing arguments into black and white. The freedoms they exercise are the freedom to titillate, the freedom to terrify, the freedom to taunt.

Now perish the thought that the prof might be playing to the gallery himself with this, dare one say, tabloid approach to academic study.

There does seem to be a touch of the Kilroys in his remarks. What have the tabloids done for us lately? Greenslade lays into The Sun, the Daily Mail and The Mail on Sunday in particular, yet there’s no mention of Cheriegate, of Jeffrey Archer, of the internet baby traders, of Buckingham Palace security – or of any of the countless other stories broken by those papers and their popular rivals. No mention either of the campaigning that they can and do carry out so effectively. Or of the criminals doing time thanks to their exposés.

He’s also somewhat infected by the academic failing of analysing the problem without coming up with any practical solutions. Greenslade notes that after Piers Morgan removed the “trivial showbiz pap” from the Mirror, he returned to it within months. “He was terrified of alienating his celebrity-obsessed readers.”

But what should Morgan have done? Continue with the serious, celeb-free policy agenda that was causing his sales to haemorrhage? And as for the “toothless” PCC, which he describes as a blatant piece of window dressing to avoid statutory control, where are his viable alternatives? But let us not be too hard on the prof, who recently posed nude for a charity calendar – presumably in the hope that it would get wide and beneficial publicity in the popular press. The central points he raises are certainly not to be ignored. Why do we exist? What is journalism for? How can we regain public trust? It’s not just those working on the papers that collectively sell 10 million copies a day that need to consider these questions. We all do.

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