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?

A tabloid.

Brian Cathcart performs a radical bit of professional taxonomy in his 3,900-word essay in the new issue of Index on Censorship that amounts to an expulsion order for the more unscrupulous elements in the British tabloid press.

Citing the outrageous, unethical, and sometimes criminal conduct of reporters and editors at Rupert Murdoch's News of the World and other sensationalistic U.K. newspapers, Cathcart declares that there are two species working at U.K. newspapers—journalists, who serve the public interest, and privacy invaders, "whose principal professional activity is invading other people's privacy for the purpose of publication."

The privacy invaders, Cathcart writes, work hard to blur the line between them and journalists. By passing themselves off as journalists, the privacy invaders "shelter under the same umbrella and enjoy the same privileges as journalists." By calling themselves journalists, they can defend their intrusions in the name of freedom of expression and freedom of the press, claiming they, too, serve the public interest. By appealing to "tradition and history … they can sound warnings about current and future censorship. This helps them to protect what they do," he continues.

But the privacy invaders are not journalists, Cathcart insists, and instead of producing journalism, they create "aluridly packaged, sensational, self-promoting... self-righteous product" that is "bad for our collective health."

If you don't read the British tabloids and haven't been following the scandals over there, Cathcart's essay will bring you up to speed on the phone-hacking story, in which News of the World gained illegal entry to the voice mail boxes of perhaps hundreds of celebrities, politicians, actors, broadcasters, athletes, and members of the "royal"   household. (For a good narrative and investigation, see last summer's feature in the New York Times Magazine.) Cathcart's essay  also retells the News of the World's"exposè" of former president of Formula 1 racing Max Mosley. The paper paid a source to photograph Mosley during one of his S&M parties and used the material to frame him on Page One as a leader of a "sick Nazi orgy." The Nazi detail was pure invention on News of the World's part, and as for the orgy, well, Mosley said it was nobody's business but his own. The newspaper was found guilty of breaching Mosley's privacy.

Cathcart, a veteran journalist who now teaches, fears that the tabloids' excesses—including the wild libels about the parents of Madeleine McCann, the British 4-year-old who went missing during a family vacation in Portugal in 2007—could result in new regulations of the press. New regulations would embolden the privacy invaders to reiterate their claim to be journalists of the besieged variety. Cathcart writes:

[The privacy invaders] are like drowning men in the water, clinging on for dear life to those who have lifejackets. But journalists, for their part, may be approaching a moment of choice. Do they acknowledge the difference, the better to protect their own interests, or do they risk being dragged down into the depths by the sinking privacy invaders?

How the good guys are supposed to separate themselves from the bad guys—outside of writing essays like this—Cathcart doesn't really say. Of course, devising the catchy phrase privacy invaders to shame misbehaving tabloid journalists is probably half the battle. Cathcart, who disparages the self-regulatory  Press Complaints Commission for being ineffective, doesn't think that scorn from inside newsrooms will be enough to deter the privacy invaders. He expects readers to whack the heads of the drowning tabloid reporters with oars and paddles of their own.

I feel Cathcart's pain and internalize his disgust, but dueling journalistic standards are as old as the popular press. Everything he's saying about privacy-invading ways of the British tabloids was said of the yellow journalism of the 1890s produced by Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst: that their techniques and topics cheapened the press and endangered everyone's freedom by giving governments a pretext to regulate. The scorn that the New York Times and other outlets heaped on the yellow press created the separation between journalism and privacy invasion that Cathcart would like to see expanded in the U.K.

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?

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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Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.