U.K. tabloids: Threat or menace?

Media criticism.
June 15 2011 6:56 PM

Outrageous! Unethical! Sometimes Criminal!

Can anyone—or anything—stop the British tabloids from misbehaving?

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I'm no expert on the U.K. press, but it seems to me no new laws or journalistic codes are needed to maintain support for the kind of public-interest journalism admired by Cathcart (and me). The News of the World is finally getting its comeuppance, Mosley won his lawsuit, and the parents of Madeleine McCann extracted some measure of financial satisfaction from the publications that abused them.

If the professional separation Cathcart advocates already exists, what's the likelihood that readers will hear his plea and break with the tabloids? Low, I'd guess. The tabloids succeed by playing to class anger and, depending on your view, provide a public service by venting it. Did the tabloids create the animosity that their U.K. readers feel for the toffs, the powerful, the wealthy, and other targets of the tabloids' rotten fruit? Or are they just exploiting it?

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I think I might be on the right track here because the sort of press abuses that make Cathcart so furious are rarer in the United States, which isn't free from class warfare but isn't as obsessed with it, either. Most of the privacy intrusions by the American press that would anger Cathcart are made by the supermarket tabloids, which are marginalized in exactly the way Cathcart would like to see observed in the U.K. or are found on tabloidy websites and TV shows such as the TMZ enterprise.

Perhaps there is less kvetching about the detailed reporting filed by every variety of U.S. press on Rep. Anthony Weiner's wiener, Arnold Schwarzenegger's love child, and John Edwards' sexual adventures because U.S. courts have restricted the privacy boundaries of public figures.

As Alex Beam writes brilliantly in his August 1999 Atlanticpiece, American law is stacked in favor of the press, be it tabloids snooping into the behavior of celebrities or the Washington Post publishing the Pentagon Papers. Tolerance for "intrusions" into the privacy of public figures is so integral to the American ethos that even a Supreme Court nominee must expect to have his unorthodox "romancing" techniques scrutinized in public by a Senate confirmation committee. Oh, Americans cough up hairballs of disgust when newspapers cover something like Gavin Newsom' s affair or the Starr Report smut, and they complain about press prurience, but they get over it pretty quickly.

I hope Cathcart files a sequel to his essay explaining why the filth and the fury peddled by U.K. tabloids attract such a large audience. In my experience, you can never go too wrong blaming the world's ills on your readers.

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Hat tip to Roy Greenslade, whose blog is a beacon of enlightenment and which alerted me to Cathcart's piece. Send enlightenment to slate.pressbox@gmail.com and bask in the wisdom of my Twitter feed. (Email may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

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