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Column: Call them red-tops if you want – but we still need popular journalism

Tabloid misbehaviour is an easy target for complaints – but popular news is essential to our society, writes John O’Sullivan.

John O'Sullivan

IT’S THREE MINUTES since I last looked at Twitter. That tab in my browser is telling me that there have been precisely 100 updates. There are 18 tabs on my screen. Another of those opens into a story that links to another story that links to a great piece of enterprise journalism putting the ECB in the frame for forcing Ireland’s calamitous bank bailouts.

What has this got to do with (tab)loid journalism? Well, quite a lot, actually. I like to think that I am a discriminating, sceptical ‘consumer’ of news, but, clearly, there is a problem here.

Technology boosters say that I need new ways to deal with information overload, and point to the ‘filter failure’ of traditional media systems, and of what they like to refer to as old-style, or ‘legacy’ journalism.

But we, the public, still depend on journalists, knowledge managers, information professionals — call them what you will, but in my experience most news workers prefer to be called reporters, correspondents, editors, sub-editors and, very occasionally, writers.
Now, a lot of those people are in the dock, and those who worked at the News of the World, published since 1843, have been booted out of their jobs.

It’s a Gotcha! moment of historic proportions. For decades, people have been voicing concern about the corrosive, trivialising nature of news as entertainment and the gross vulgarity of sexualised, celebrity-obsessed ‘newszak’ put out by those trench-coated pigs of Spitting Image fame.

Now they have sunk themselves by going too far. Who but a tabloid low-life would be warped enough to hack into Milly Dowler’s voicemails? There is no defence. Cue the pillorying at the Leveson Inquiry and, of course, not a little glee at the sudden humiliation of the Murdochs, a spectacle most enjoyed by Britain’s political class, who have lived their lives in fear of Digger and his contemptible cohorts.

‘If Jeremy Clarkson had his way, tabloid journalists would be taken out and shot’

This is a tabloid story par excellence: TIME TO STAMP OUT RED-TOP MENACE, a simple narrative with good guys, bad guys, and, as much righteous indignation as we can handle.
If BBC boor and Sunday Times controversialist Jeremy Clarkson had his way, tabloid journalists would be taken out and shot in front of their families, just like those horrible public sector workers.

Speaking of trivialisation and celebrity, do you know the name and age of Adam Clayton’s daughter? Not that it’s any of your business or mine — she hasn’t sought to be in the public eye — but I could tell you if you really wanted to know, because this week the Guardian told me.

The Guardian, like all ‘quality’ newspapers, couches the delivery of this data — it is hardly information — in a knowingly ironic, conspiratorial tone.

The Sunday Times does precisely the same with its tabloid round-up, and all ‘quality’ newspapers vicariously engage in such journalism in one form or another. All the while, the unspoken contract is that the reader wouldn’t touch a tabloid with a barge pole. Tabloid hacks have been known deftly to call such a production, especially when it includes a spread of salacious images, a ‘broadsheet story’.

‘You will have little trouble finding all you don’t need to know about Louis Walsh or Wayne Rooney in an Irish newspaper of any stripe’

Broadsheets and compacts — we mustn’t call them tabloids, even though that accurately describes the size of the new formats — love nothing more. In an age when Twitter trends confirm our collective celeb addiction, you will have little trouble finding all you don’t need to know about Louis Walsh or Wayne Rooney in an Irish newspaper of any stripe.
The ‘respectable’ press in Britain and Ireland has strategically appropriated the concerns, the techniques and the styles of popular journalism.

This process has tended to make all news, not just that in the tabloids, more accessible and relevant to people’s lives. However much we may caricature tabloidese, when journalists at the Mail or Irish Daily Star work on a story, they craft it with skill and effort, and with the intent that it will be read by a mass audience. When modern journalists at other newspapers, however elite, write their stories, if they are doing their jobs properly, they do so in similar vein.

This is not the same as dumbing down. If news matters to democracy, then we should want as many people as possible reading or watching it.

If commercial pressures in the form of short-term ‘shareholder value’ instead produces, via newsroom bullying, bad journalism, then it might be useful to think not of damning journalists but of protecting them from such pressures by training them better, giving them secure professional bulwarks, and maintaining the staffing levels needed to provide editorial checks and balances.

Concerns on journalism standards are not confined to tabloids. In recent days, Britain’s broadsheet editors have begun to appear at Leveson, to answer questions about their own lapses, such as quite blatant plagiarism, owner influence and paying for information on MPs’ expenses.

‘The outsider, irreverent, disruptive spirit of tabloids has much to offer’

These specific questions come against a backdrop of narrowing news agendas, the chronic reliance on distorting PR, and clear cosiness with powerful business and political sources.
One interesting development is a palpable change of tone. So far at least, the broadsheet news executives’ exchanges with interrogating lawyers have been appreciably friendlier.
This difference, I think, goes to the heart of what tabloids could be about. In essence, freed from the tyranny of respectability, their outsider, irreverent and even disruptive spirit potentially has much to offer, if properly channelled. This is the kind of awkward squad journalism that the Daily Mirror that employed John Pilger represented, or that saw the Vita Cortex workers’ protest make the lead in the Irish Daily Mail.

Beyond putting evil cartoon hacks in the stocks, what is needed is a recognition of and support for good journalism. This is a very easy thing to say, and a very hard thing to achieve. It seems especially at odds with a climate in which news organizations’ failings are seized upon by politicians, business interests and self-righteous multi-millionaire celebrities seeking to tighten controls on the press, in the context of an already restrictive defamation regime.

To get good journalism, we need to allow journalists more autonomy, not less, and, however inconvenient, to give them more say in setting professional standards and regulating their activities. That doesn’t fit well in an era of news as a commodity, and of wage cuts, casualisation and outsourcing to the lowest bidder.

It’s been remarked in some quarters that the Leveson Inquiry has on its committee no one with direct knowledge of popular journalism. The Irish Press Council does not suffer from this glaring omission, but working journalists or their representatives still are well outnumbered by the lawyers, industry figures and establishment grandees.

The implication appears to be that news professionals should not rise above their workstations to help make important decisions on journalism policy. If we really are concerned about press standards, then having in place some more people who know something about this stuff from direct experience might be a good place to start.

Information crisis! My Twitter tab has clocked up 400 more tweets. Never mind. I’m going elsewhere to get my news from some people whose job it is to keep it as relevant, crisp, clear, and truthful as they can.

John O’Sullivan lectures in online journalism and in media and technology at Dublin City University.

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John O'Sullivan

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