Tabloids, the scouge of truth and democracy
Thomas Klikauer teaches at the Sydney Graduate School of Management at Western Sydney University, Australia. He has over 600 publications including a book on the AfD.
The word tabloid means a newspaper that is smaller in size than a standard newspaper. Some evil heretics might be tempted to think that it also means that tabloids are written for people with a small brain size.
Yet, a tabloid covers a different content to that of the so-called quality papers, like the New York Times, The Washington Post, the Guardian, etc. Tabloid newspapers carry sensational topics, hair- racing crime stories, esoteric astrology, celebrities who are famous for being famous, silly gossips, sports, television, and even – one in particular – sleazy sex. As CNN calls it, spikes not facts.
Not surprisingly, tabloid journalism is also different from quality journalism. Tabloid journalism is a populist version of journalism. It dramatizes something that is often unverifiable and – equally often –blatantly false. Historically, tabloids have replaced earlier labels such as penny press, yellow press, yellow journalism, and scandal sheets.
Perhaps one of the best examples of tabloid journalism remains Murdoch’s The Sun in the UK. Yet, there are also: the Mirror, the Daily Mail, and the Daily Telegraph. In the USA, it is Murdoch’s New York Post, the National Enquirer, and Murdoch’s tabloidization of TV: Fox News.
It is not at all surprising to see that tabloid journalism operates under a double standard – some might even say, a hypocrisy. Murdoch’s arch conservative News of the World is a good example. Murdoch was forced to close it down after the infamous phone hacking scandal.
Yet, for many decades, it was one of the loudest voices of hard-core law-&-order. Together with the newspaper, The Sun, it lobbied constantly for tougher penalties and harsher actions against the so-called “anti-social” behavior. Simultaneously, and – directly or indirectly – “overseen” by the Murdoch gang, its journalists, themselves, indulged in bribery, corruption, and worse: the theft of confidential information.
In the UK, the tablioidization of newspapers received a gigantic push in January 1981 when two papers – the quality newspapers: the Times and its Sunday version – were sold to the right-wing gossip-monger Rupert Murdoch.
During the first visit of Murdoch’s henchmen and lackeys at the UK’s quality newspaper, Sunday Times, they made their ideological hostility to traditional journalism very clear. They openly displayed their contempt for those who are practising real journalism. Journalists were stigmatised as lead-swingers, i.e. people who make up excuses, expense paddlers, layabouts, and Trotskyites. This marked the start of the tabloidization of a newspaper.
What followed the first visit of Murdoch’s minions and stooges was that many experienced journalists sought to escape from Murdoch’s new and harsh regime of tabloid churnalism. Under Murdoch, journalists were increasingly forced into churnalism. They are compelled to churn out of a massive number of news stories, often without any substance or facts and in a short period of time.
Apart from the fact that Hitler never wrote any diaries (having next to no knowledge of the German grammar), the entire saga shows the hallucination of editorial independence. Inside Murdoch’s media empire, the owner simply tells you what to do and what to write. In other words, editorial independence is a fairy-tale for glossy textbooks on journalism.
Yet, when Murdoch’s own expert – Lord Dacre – expressed doubts about the authenticity of the Hitler Diaries, Murdoch announced to his minions, Fuck Dacre, publish! In other words, the imperatives of tabloid churnalism take precedence over the need for proper testing to establish historical truths.
Murdoch’s empire is a fine example of a corporation where the defining motive is to make money and for whom journalism is primarily a source of income and profit making. To crank up profits even further, Rupert Murdoch has cut one budget after another. It follows one of neoliberalism’s core ideologies: cost-cutting.
For Murdoch – who holds the biggest megaphone in the English speaking world – newspaper editors functioned primarily as businessmen. By cost-cutting, editors are denigrated to mere businessmen, coupled with a relentless push to increase profits and the endemic bullying which resulted in three things:
not enough journalists;
not enough experience (replacing experienced journalists with interns and freelancers); and,
not enough time to properly check sources and verify stories.
Tabloid churnalism can be characterized by a preference for propaganda over evidence; and for not asking journalistic questions. It is about supplying a pre-conceived and pre-framed pattern of right-wing answers linked to an editorial ideology that stabilizes domination – usually the domination of a conservative political party.
Rupert Murdoch’s standard behavior, his ultra right-wing ideology, and his businesses’ harsh business practices forged an unholy alliance with one of the greatest enforcer of the ideology of neoliberalism: Margaret Thatcher.
Inside his tabloids, he relentlessly imposed his right-wing framework on his newspaper editors. Whereas the pre-Murdoch’s Sunday Times (before 1981) – when it functioned properly – he would have stood back and asked difficult questions. Murdoch’s Sunday Times (after 1981) strongly favored only one side: the side of staunchly conservative Thatcher. It is no longer news. Now, it is a one-sided propaganda.
Yet for once, Murdoch’s very same ideology and one-sidedness failed to work in Australia’s 2022 election. During the final days of the election, Murdoch’s ideological flagship in Australia – the Daily Telegraph – carried 188 front pages for Australia’s right-wing conservative party and its leader known as Scomo; at the same time, it carried 99 “neutral” front pages; but – unsurprisingly – just 38 for Labor.
Just as on its home-turf, in the UK too, the investigative tradition of Murdoch’s Times has comprehensively been abandoned. In Australia, just as in the UK, this has led to a burst of accidental misinformation, deliberate disinformation, and right-wing propaganda.
One story exemplifies how Murdoch’s churnalism works. In a, by now famous, episode of Murdoch’s misinformation, his newspaper misreported on three IRA terrorists. All three were shot dead during a battle with Britain’s SAS – its special forces in the British enclave of Gibraltar located at the southern tip of Spain. Yet, none of the so-called terrorists was carrying any weapon.
In Murdoch’s Sunday Times, it became a news story headlined SAS: WHY WE FIRED AT IRA GANG. The newspaper declared, this was another victory for Britain’s security services. As we know today, the three were simply executed. But that never made it into Murdoch’s paper.
Instead, one of Murdoch’s men simply admitted, on many of the biggest struggles of her decade in power, the Sunday Times stood shoulder to shoulder with her. Thatcher’s battles were our battles. It was more than nine months after the shootings, when Murdoch’s Times was finally forced to retract its earlier misinformation, disinformation, or right-wing propaganda.
In other words, Rupert Murdoch is a corporate owner who only cares about three things: profits, news propaganda, and the ideology of neoliberalism. This helped him to maintain his alliance with Margaret Thatcher.
Meanwhile, inside Murdoch’s world of tabloid churnalism, things had gotten worse. Murdoch’s overarching motto remains, to be a successful editorial leader, you have to be a bit of a shit. Working for Murdoch’s tabloid got so bad that one journalist commented, there are some journalists who would rather inhale vomit than work for Murdoch.
Inside the empire of tabloid churnalism, Murdoch’s henchmen were cutting staff and the budgets of newspapers. Murdochism starves journalists of the means to investigate and write stories. They simply demanded more and more stories and news scoops.
Reporters working under the regime of churnalism talked of a relentless pressure to deliver stories: even if that meant distorting the truth; even when it meant inventing a quote presented as supporting evidence or inventing an entire news story altogether; worse, even when it meant breaking the law to get the voice mail of a murdered teenage girl. As one journalist said, Murdoch’s Times want something for nothing. And they want it fast.
To crank up tabloid churnalism, Murdoch’s henchmen hired several new business executives. Murdoch believed that these men were hard-arsed, no-nonsense story-getters who would deliver saleable headlines to sell the tabloid paper and to crank up profits. Meanwhile, several reporters use virtually the same phrases (hard-arsed, no-nonsense story-getters) to illustrate the atmosphere in a churnalist’s newsroom: a climate of fear.
In any case, the key to understanding tabloid churnalism is the following: as long as news scoops are being delivered and the tabloid is selling, Murdoch’s people are happy. Over and over, this meant accidental misinformation, deliberate disinformation, planned deception, and the planned breach of the privacy of their victims to get juicy stories. Beyond that, there is absolutely no evidence that this kind of tabloid churnalism serves the public interest.
Tabloid churnalism also means that weak stories are hyped-up, as long as they fit the prevailing ideology. News stories are frequently rewritten in order to – as churnalists call it – sharpen an angle. This means a piece is rewritten, edited, and re-edited until it depicts the right ideology – the right-wing ideology of Murdoch. This is done even when it demands to distort the truth or to simply invent a story. In the end, everything has to be sensational.
In other words, tabloid churnalism means that the entire stories are shaped and re-shaped to fit a pre-assigned ideology. Yet, tabloid churnalism also means that a desperate quest for suitable scoops is engineered. News stories are produced – or partly invented – without suitable resources, as long as all of this produces a sheer endless string of tabloid stories – many of which are simply fictitious.
In some cases, such tabloid stories are spiced up by experts’ statements. This is another trick. Here is how this works: when a news piece needs a quote from an expert to fill a gap or to give a story legitimacy or the appearance of being supported, churnalists are told by their overseers to get on the phone. They are told to keep phoning. They are forced to do so until they find some “experts” willing to give them exactly the quote they wanted.
One reporter puts it like this, it was like going into a restaurant and ordering this quote off the menu, and it had to be exactly this. In other words, these so-called “experts” – or better: independent experts – are, in reality compliant academics, right-wing economists pushing the ideology of neoliberalism, corporate lobbyists, and ideological apostles of corporate think tanks. They are the suppliers of ideology. In tabloid churnalism, an expert needs to fit into a pre-conceived story that mirrors a set ideology. Selecting the “right” expert works as a FIFO: fit in or f*** off!
Next to all this, in tabloid churnalism many churnalists routinely accept unchecked statements from official sources which remains by far, the easiest – and one of the most common – methods for PR and propaganda to enter the news.
In churnalism more than in real journalism, many reporters will simply reproduce what they get told by an official source. Journalists tend to do that largely because they are predisposed to believe those official sources. During the Iraq war of 2003, they were called “embedded journalists” – also known as “being in bed with”, well, the Pentagon.
It is not at all surprising to see that governments are highly adept at manipulating reporters. They are particularly keen to insert their message into the columns of newspapers and tabloids. This unchecked transmission can provide readers with a steady dribble of falsehood and distortion. Today, a whopping 31% of Americans still feel that climate change is not a serious problem.
Tabloid churnalism assures that readers are slowly soaked into the orbit of disinformation. Yet, this is not some kind of Stalinist’s censorship or a grant conspiracy orchestrated by churnalism or Murdoch. Instead, it is the result of sustained and often subtle manipulation. Slowly, tabloid churnalism steers its readers into a direction which they would not otherwise have taken.
Perhaps the entire purpose of tabloid churnalism is to manipulate large sections of a population into believing in significant falsehoods. Yet, it is also about creating a track record of deceit and lying for the sake of newspaper stories and sales.
When all this gets into too deep waters, many countries have established government agencies that oversee the free press. These agencies are called, for example, the USA’s Federal Communications Commission (FCC, e.g. a TV is a taster with pictures), the Australian Press Council (APC), or the UK’s Press Complaints Commission (PCC).
All three pretty much function in a very similar way and all three serve a similar purpose. The UK’s PCC is no exception. Yet, in a period of ten years, the PCC received a total of 28,227 complaints from members of the public. Interestingly, the PCC refused to consider the rulings on 25,457 of them: just over 90%.
During the same ten years, a microscopic 197 complaints were actually upheld by an adjudication: that is 0.69%. In other words, having such agencies is very interesting, but it won’t make the slightest difference on tabloid churnalism. And it makes virtually no difference if it is the PCC, APC, or the FCC.
Under the governments that are running with the ideology of neoliberalism, the function of the PCC, the APC, and the FCC isn’t to oversee the press – it is something entirely different. The function of these government agencies is to provide a fig-leaf – an alibi – that sustains the power of tabloid churnalism.
Under neoliberalism, this comes under one of its main ideologies: industry self-regulation. The idea is to give the public the impression that someone is watching tabloid churnalism while – and this is the important part – tabloid churnalism can carry on with business as usual, just as Murdoch, etc. wants it. Almost self-evidently, there is a strong mutual support between tabloid churnalism on the one hand and the ideology of neoliberalism and conservatives parties pushing neoliberalism.
Inside a tabloid newspaper, most of the more successful complaints are dealt with in the following way: that is, tabloids resolves the problem of complaints by publishing the so-called clarifications. This prevents them from having to admit their wrongdoing.
Usually, this is done by printing the clarification – weeks or months later – in a far less prominent spot (page 86, left side, and at the bottom) than where the original story appeared (e.g. front page). It is yet another alibi-producing fig-leaf sustaining the power of tabloid churnalism. Worse, is this; in a rather common example, a tabloid was eventually forced to concede that its claim – a story of 2,092 words – had been entirely false. The clarification was just 81 words.
Just when you think it can’t get any worse – with tabloids, it almost always does. Being loose with the facts – to put it politely – rather frequently, and even when found out, produces next to no fear of any sort of consequences in tabloids.
Tabloids have three rings of defences: for one, the local PCC/APC/FCC will bail you out, as their task is to protect tabloid churnalism while making the public believe it is a watchdog.
Secondly, and this is even worse, victims of tabloid churnalism often can’t afford to sue wealthy and powerful tabloids. Still worse, if a victim does sue, the tabloid can live with the minuscule fines imposed on them – the equivalent of a 5c speeding ticket. Corporations see such fines – when found out at all and when fined (which rarely happens) – as the cost of doing business – no more.
Beyond all this, most tabloid churnalism carries a right-wing ideology that drives its addiction to a conservative or reactionary political party: the Tories in the UK, Republicans in the USA, Conservatives in Australia, etc. At the same time, tabloid churnalism defends the rich and powerful while pretending to support the ordinary person.
The common targets of tabloid churnalism are – among others – black people, poor people, liberals and all kinds of “lefties”, as defined by tabloid churnalism, of course. Next, also being targeted are those defined as: scroungers, druggies, feminists, and homosexuals. These will all be attacked.
And if it is necessary to attack, some of the rich and powerful, and, if absolutely necessary, even conservatives are attacked – as long as it sells newspapers. Here is an almost classical case outlined by a young reporter,
they phoned me early one morning and told me to drive about three hundred miles to cover a murder; it was a woman and her two children who’d been killed; I got an hour and a half into the journey, and the news desk called me on my mobile and said, “come back”; I said, “why’s that?” and they said, “they’re black”.
Perhaps the final word on tabloid churnalism should come from Nick Davis, the author of Flat Earth News. He closes with this: at the Columbia School of Journalism in New York, they display the words of the former newspaper proprietor and editor, Joseph Pulitzer:
A cynical, mercenary, demagogic, corrupt press
will produce in time a people as base as itself.