11 KEY MOMENTS IN TABLOID HISTORY (1,600 words)
(+01) ORIGINS: The modern tabloid newspaper is a strange marriage of Edwardian England and the wild west.The formula was American, but it perfected in London by a couple of technical geniuses in the new field of printing photographs in the run up to World War One.
One of them (Harry Guy ‘Bart’ Bartholomew) was illiterate, the other (Hannan ‘Swaff’ Swaffer) claimed to be psychic, and who used to specialised in interview then-recently deceased celebrities such as Chief Sitting Bull and Florence Nightingale. Both were violent drunks with colourful privates and legendary feuds with each other and everyone else in the newspaper business.
Together produced the original media goldmine – the Daily Mirror. It was set up by a former small town shyster lawyer turned faddy cycling trendsetter called Alfred Harmsworth as the latest in a long string of get-rich-quick schemes. In later life Harmsworth was so paranoid that lived in a tent on top of his Mayfair mansion for security/insanity reasons. Then he shot his butler, mistaking him, as one does, for a Bolshevik assassin. By this time he was, naturally enough, in the House of Lords (as Lord Northcliffe).
(+02) DEAD MONARCHS SELL PAPERS: Bart and Swaff’s first and genre-defining scoop involved printing the stolen private death bed pictures of King Edward VII. Swaff bribed a few palace flunkies (nothing is new) to get the pictures.
The Mirror sold a world record two million (roughly a hundred times normal circulation levels at the time). The paper cost a halfpenny, but was changjng hands on the black market for a shilling.
Journalists associated with this and the increasing number of similar death-bed intrusion escapades were described as “ghouls”, “criminals” and “animals beneath contempt” in the Times (this, to be fair, was seventy years before Rupert Murdoch bought the paper).
(+03) SINKING THE TITANTIC: The second huge scoop of involved the sinking of the Titanic, which he managed to promote as pictures of the sinking ship itself. Thus was born the tabloid art of building a mountain of salivating reader anticipation on a tiny grain of actual truth.
When Swaff got the news of the accident on the newswires he bought the rights to all existing pictures of the ship. Up went the “read all about” posters (barkers) displaying the slogan EXCLUSIVE – LAST EVER PICTURES OF TITANIC. All the rival papers ran the story of the sinking.
What salivating readers found in the paper were promotional traion-spotter type pictures of the ship in Southampton harbour, and not the dramatic scenes of watery horror they might have been anticipating.
(+04) DEATH, NEW YORK STYLE: By the ‘20s the tabloid formula had been re-exported across the Atlantic and taken further. The January 13th 1928 edition of the New York Daily News had the headline DEAD! In huge type above a full page picture of a women in the electric chair, back arched in agony at the moment of death.
Ruth Synder had been executed for the murder of her own husband the previous day. The paper had paid one of the jury who had to witness the gruesome event to take a picture with a camera strapped to his ankle, operated by a pneumatic bulb. There is a theory that the paper framed Synder just so they could get the picture, and a leaked version of the suitably lurid police account of her supposed crime.
(+05/) FEAR EATS THE SOUL: Alongside the News, the New York Post, also thrived by setting new standards for insensitivity in the reporting of murder and judicial vengeance. The Post was acquired by Rupert Murdoch in 1976 who imported journalists from the Sun in London, then in its super soaraway heyday. The “Brash Brits: of the Murdoch Empire lead the way with headlines such as HEADLESS BODY FOUND IN TOPLESS BAR and the legendary KILLER BEES HEAD NORTH.
(+06) IT WAS THE SUN WHAT WON IT: The Sun’s support for Margaret Thatcher in 1979 was recognised by her team as having been crucial in reaching a mass audience of C2 skilled workers The Sun headline: THIS IS THE WINTER OF OUT DISCONTENT entered into the language and earned the paper the hatred of the political left for a generation. In 1992 Conservative party chairman Lord Thorneycroft said that the sun had delivered that year’s election to his party. Few doubted him.
(+07) DON’T GO OVERBOARD TO BUY THE MIRROR: The Sun’s cruel headline marking the death of Robert Maxwell, the bizarre financial super criminal who had taken over the already failing Daily Mirror and reduced it to ruins. Thereafter the SHOCK AND AMAZE ON EVERY PAGE approach pioneered by the Mirror would be inherited, and moulded to his own purposes, by Rupert Murdoch. A lot of the legendary success of The Sun was more to do with the implosion of the Mirror.
(+08) DI-LAND IN THE SUN: The profitable obsession with the royals which dated back to the snatched death-bed pictures of Edward VII. The Sun relentlessly exploited the constitutional convention that the royals can not use their own courts to sue. A high/low point was the printing of Synder-esque telephoto lens pictures of a pregnant Diana sunbathing on a Caribbean private beach. The Sun’s photographs had to crawl through the jungle for a day to get the picture and the physically destroyed the only fax machines on the island to make sure rivals would not scoop them.
(+09) THE INSANITY OF CROWDS. Once you have 12 million readers (as claimed by the Sun in its heyday) intellectual subtlety necessarily gives way to the rampant exploitation of gullibility, superstition and ignorance.
Newspaper bingo and cash prize competitions are one example (resembling a fun-fair coconut shy but with obvious multiple coatings of glue securing the coconuts in place), another is Astrology (the tabloids’ specific and emphatic refutation of The Scientific Method). One example was THE SUN TAKES ON THE CURSE OF THE CRYING BOY PICTURE – where readers were encouraged to take down and send in a mass market print supposedly responsible for starting house fires. Thousands arrived which were then ceremonially burnt in a bonfire looking a bit like a Nazi book-burning festival. The reporter was by-lined “Fine Art Correspondent”.
(+10) STICK IT UP YOUR PUN-TER: It is customary to mention the comedy aspect of headlines such as ZIP ME UP BEFORE YOU GO-GO (on the arrest of George Michael accused of indecency in a public toilet); TATA TUTU (the pre-prepared and yet to be printed gloating headline anticipating the death of Archbishop Desmond Tutu) and THE ION LADY (Margaret Thatcher undergoes electrolysis; this being the only tabloid headline know to me to feature its own asterisk and lengthy footnote explaining the joke. Folks!).
(+11) WORST EVER STORY: For many the worst tabloid headline/story was the Sun’s THE TRUTH. You have the libelling of an entire city on fuelled by prejudice and interlocking with a police cover-up. Piers Morgan’s printing of a faked Daily Mirror front page photo of supposed prisoner abuse by British soldiers in Iraq was another dark episode. With stunts like these, it is little wonder that the tabloids can suddenly become unpopular with the underdog audience they claim to champion.