British tabloids have often come under scrutiny and have been criticised for their gossipy style, intrusive investigations and populist, partisan reporting. One of the more disgraceful moments in the history of tabloids was the News of the World phone-hacking scandal, which involved journalists who worked for the now-defunct tabloid tapping into phone calls. Victims included celebrities Angelina Jolie and Jude Law, plus royals Princess Diana and Prince William. To find out more about the infamous tabloid trade, Speak Up spoke with Siobhan O’Neill, a freelance journalist with more than fifteen years’ experience writing reports and online content. She began by explaining why this type of journalism is still so popular in Britain.
Siobhan O’Neill (English accent): British tabloids are quite unique in the world. I don’t think many other countries have tabloid papers in quite the same way that we do in the UK. And although they have had some problems in the past with the reputation and the way they report certain stories, and particularly around their reporting of celebrities, they have mostly maintained quite strong sales and good popularity with people. If that’s not actually in a paper one that you buy from the shop, they still have very high numbers of visitors online on their website. The Daily Mail is one of the most widely-read websites in the world. And I think partly it’s their mix of celebrity reporting… people in particular in Britain, but also in America, they love celebrity gossip.
Tabloids are not just entertaining, they are also powerful political tools, says O’Neill.
Siobhan O’Neill: Although they have had a bad reputation in the past, they have... also have a good reputation for campaigning. They often will pick up on an issue that has a lot of resonance with British people and they will fight for a particular cause, and often they have brought around changes in the law. So, they tap into the zeitgeist, the popular opinion and they made it their own.
As such, she says, they can also be responsible for positive reform.
Siobhan O’Neill: In terms of good things that tabloids have done, I would talk about the law changes and the campaigning they’ve done. They brought in new legislation that helps people, quite recently, they brought in what’s called Natasha’s Law in the UK, which is shops having to display allergen information on food items after a very sad story of a young woman who died after eating a sandwich that wasn’t properly labelled with something that she was allergic to. So that was something that tabloid papers picked up and sort of really popularized the idea that all retailers should publish allergy information. They’ve often campaigned on miscarriages of justice, where people have been wrongly imprisoned for crimes they didn’t commit. So they are a really strong, powerful voice.
However, the hunger for gossip can lead tabloid reporters to cross ethical and legal lines.
Siobhan O’Neill: Of course, for the bad side, there’s a very famous case, which actually ended up closing some tabloid newspapers, because they were tapping into people’s phones and taking their voicemail messages without their knowledge. And celebrities like Hugh Grant got very angry about this and… and took them to court, but also from a more serious side, there was a very famous case about a young schoolgirl that was murdered called Milly Dowler. Her phone was missing and it came to light afterwards that tabloid newspapers tapped voicemail messages that people had sent her when they were trying to find her and, obviously, that was not a good look for those papers.
The Sun: Daily circulation: 1,210,915
Originally published as a broadsheet, The Sun was re-launched as a tabloid by Australian-American media tycoon Rupert Murdoch after he acquired it in November 1969. Having achieved worldwide infamy for its topless pictures of women on page 3, this tradition was eventually scrapped in 2015 following an online petition. The tabloid has been involved in many controversies, including the insensitive handling of a case of domestic violence involving Harry Potter author J. K. Rowling, and its coverage of the 1989 Hillsborough football stadium disaster. The Sun is traditionally right-wing and Eurosceptic. It has a sister paper called The Sun on Sunday, which was launched to replace The News of the World when it closed.
Daily Mirror: Daily circulation: 367,476
The Daily Mirror (or ‘The Mirror’) was founded in 1903 as a newspaper for women, but its founder Alfred Harmsworth (later Viscount Northcliffe) quickly gave that up and turned it into a photo-rich newspaper targeting the working class as a whole. It is the UK’s oldest surviving tabloid newspaper. Since the 1945 general election the Daily Mirror has supported the Labour Party. It has also attempted a number of times to dissociate itself from the term ‘red top’ (changing its logo from red to black). It has a Sunday sister paper called the Sunday Mirror. In 2015, the publishers of both papers were ordered to pay £1.2m in compensation to eight victims of phone-hacking, including the actor Sadie Frost and the former footballer Paul Gascoigne.
a royal scandal
And the relationship between the tabloids and the royal family is particularly interesting, says O’Neill.
Siobhan O’Neill: The tabloid relationship with the royal family until fairly recently was sort of decreasing. There was a huge amount of interest in the fact that Meghan was joining the royal family, and probably their wedding was more popular than William and Kate’s had been before them. And then of course their decision to leave and go overseas has been hugely picked over in the tabloid papers. Everyone has got an opinion on it. Everyone’s got an idea about why they’ve chosen to do this and what it means about that.
The tabloid press famously hounded Princess Diana up until her death in 1997. It marked a turning point in the media’s relationship with the royals, says O’Neill.
Siobhan O’Neill: There’ve been lots of claims in the past that the tabloid papers haven’t been very kind to the royal family. Obviously, there was a lot of speculation about their role in what happened to Princess Diana and this huge amount of publicity and focus that was placed on her and whether that huge amount of pressure sort of played a part in the collapse of her marriage and everything that happened to her.
It led to royals and celebrities blaming the media for mental stress, as O’Neill explains.
Siobhan O’Neill: That certainly is what Harry and Meghan have said, that the amount of pressure and visibility and focus on them wasn’t good for their mental health. But of course, the royal family does have really strict rules about how they engage with the media. So, yeah, there are restrictions on the way that they report, but if people weren’t interested in the stories then they wouldn’t print them. As long as there’s an audience then the papers are going to keep printing the stories.
So what does the future hold for Britain’s popular press?
Siobhan O’Neill:As far as I know, most of the tabloids are not losing money. They don’t get most of their money from readers. They get money from advertisers. No one’s making money from people buying papers at the corner shop anymore. You know it’s all from advertising and…and clicks on the page. They are hugely influential as well, obviously, on the way people vote and what people believe. So they are quite powerful.
First published as a broadsheet in 1900 by Sir Arthur Pearson, the Daily Express caters to readers who like entertainment as well as coverage on important news events. It is traditionally associated with populist right-wing interests, especially those of the UK Independence Party (UKIP), and has taken a strong favourable stance on Brexit and Euroscepticism.
Daily Star: Daily circulation: 984,043
Its main target audience are lower middle-class British women. The Daily Mail‘s main shareholder is Jonathan Harmsworth, 4th Viscount Rothermere, a great-grandson of one of the newspaper’s original co-founders. Traditionally seen as right-wing, the tabloid is often criticised for printing sensationalist and inaccurate scare stories on scientific and medical research. Its sister paper, the Mail on Sunday, is the biggest-selling Sunday newspaper in the UK with a circulation of 1,588,164 copies each week. It recently lost a court case to Meghan Markle, who accused the paper of misuse of private information as it had published parts of a personal letter to her estranged father without her permission.