News of the Screwed

Jul 11 2011 @ 11:30am

by Alex Massie

Hello everyone. Many thanks to Andrew and the rest of the Dish team for inviting me to loiter in these parts this week. Last time was a blast and it's lovely to be back. About me: I usually blog at the Spectator where I tend to despair about the state of the Republican party, fret about the future of test match cricket, ponder the future of the United Kingdom and worry that Ireland is done for. PG Wodehouse is the cure for most of this stuff. It's Plum or the revolver and whisky option. I'm a small-l libertarian who worries that while the past 40 years have been great the good times may be coming to an end. More on this later, perhaps.

This week the most entertaining issue on this rain-soaked isle is the demise of the News of the World. This presents a number of problems: one is loathe to accept that the sanctimonious Guardian and BBC have a point but nor can one be persuaded that binning the News of the Screws is anything like the tragedy its defenders suggest.  My friend Fraser Nelson has written the best, most persuasive example of this genre but even it won't quite do.

The final edition of the newspaper, stuffed with saccharine remembrances of its "greatest hits" demonstrated how few of those hits owed anything to the kind of "crusading" journalism the tabloids preen and pride themselves on producing. On the contrary, they're vehicles for a toxic and vicious combination of cynicism and sentimentality. A tabloid newspaper, almost by definition, is the worst type of bully – the kind that also thinks itself permanently aggrieved and entitled to victim status. Charles Moore, former editor of the Daily Telegraph, was quite right to suggest that the tabloids behave as though they're rulers of a "privatised police state".

There's much more to come out of this affair, not least because it implicates most other newspapers too. Fleet Street is no place for innocents and there are no clean hands on Grub Street. And yet despite their venality and their ghastliness there's something to be said for the vigour of the tabloid life. As Toby Harnden points out the alternatives are not much preferable:

[I]t would be convenient for [David Cameron and Ed Miliband] to have a press that is, shall we say, rather more respectful of politicans than has previously been the case. A press like there is here in Washington, where reporters stand for the president and feel puffed up with pride when he calls on them to ask a question (very often a pretentious, look-at-me three-parter that has little to do with getting a decent answer).

How nice it would be if, like the US, the press would dutifully write “beat sweeteners” to ingratiate themselves, where stories are not written for fear of the journalist falling out of favour, where the political and media elites attend the same cocktail parties and envelope themselves in the same stultifyingly comfortable consensus about what is happening and what should be reported on.

Of course, there is much magnificant American journalism. At it’s best, it is more accurate, more comprehensive, and more serious than some of the (let’s be frank) tendentious and prurient bilge you can read in some British papers.

But I like the fact that British journalists are, as Robert Shrimsley points out here, a grubby, dispreputable breed of misfits and awkward malcontents who delight in upsetting people. In America, journalism is a hallowed craft (I always laugh when I see the Journalists’ Creed at the National Press Club). In Britain, it’s a shabby trade.

This is true and yet boasting of the British press's proletarian credentials is also, surely, mildly unseemly? Then again, the smug superiority of the "respectable" American media ought to have been dented by its calamitous failure to cover John Edwards (or Bill Clinton) in any meaningful fashion. The National Enquirer can give the New York Times some lessons. Here, as in so many other places, it may be a question of picking your poison.The tabloids are vile but so is life without them. If they are grim it's because, at least in part, the punters are pretty vile too. That's why Rebekah Brooks should have argued I Am Not A Witch, I'm You.

Tell me why I'm wrong by writing to me at alexmassieATgmail.com. And you can follow me on Twitter too.