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2 September 2014 20:42 (South Africa)
Opinionista Anton Harber

In defence of tabloids

  • Anton Harber
I have a criminal conviction myself – left over from the apartheid era – for bugging someone. Back in the early 1990s, I hired a detective (who turned out to be totally incompetent) to listen in on a meeting in a seedy Hillbrow Hotel.

I am not proud of it, nor am I ashamed of it. I did it because I believed the meeting was planning rightwing resistance to the 1994 elections, possibly even train killings, which were rampant at the time.

It was something I would only do under extreme circumstances, and it was an act very much of that time. Had we succeeded in exposing rightwing violence, we would likely have drawn praise, even honour. Instead, when the hired investigator was caught, I handed myself over to police, was charged and convicted. I made no attempt to hide what I had done, but I believed I could convince the higher courts I had acted in the public interest. I failed, accepted my conviction, paid my fine and lived with the suspended sentence.

At the time, I was editor of the Mail & Guardian, a serious, highbrow newspaper that has always been compact-sized, but also always had some of the cheekiness and rambunctiousness usually associated with tabloids. It was a tough, investigative, outspoken paper, but we felt we could also learn from the best of the tabloids – something worth remembering as critics turn on tabloid culture in the wake of Britain’s phone-hacking scam.

The truth is that every journalist – no matter how serious and high-minded – has some admiration for Fleet Street tabloids.

This is not an easy time to praise such papers, in the wake of the scandal which has so far led to the arrest of about 10 journalists, one CEO, the closure of a 168-year-old newspaper, the resignation of senior publishers in Rupert Murdoch’s News International group as well as the London City police chief, a commission of inquiry that is going to look into the conduct of both journalists and police and a political crisis for the British prime minister who was foolish enough to  befriend, host and hire some of the culprits

But before we consign all tabloid journalists to the same trash heap, let’s remember what these papers have achieved.

They brought great liveliness and a popular touch to newspapering. One has to admire the spunkiness, cheekiness and humour of the best of them. You have to be grateful for their capacity to take everyone down a peg or two, particularly pompous politicians and bragging celebrities. You have to credit them for connecting with working class readers much better than the “quality” newspapers. And often being better designed, with witty headlines and bold use of graphics and pictures which make their serious counterparts look dull and predictable.

As a journalist, one has to acknowledge their storytelling skill and their capacity to do it all in punchy stories of no more than 300 single-syllable words. They often also relentlessly mocked the high-minded pomposity of their sister broadsheets, in a healthy and provocative way. One of the funniest takes on Murdoch last week was by a rival tabloid which pictured him as Homer Simpson and had a graphic of his share price falling, literally, into a toilet.

Occasionally, they have broken significant stories. The US’s National Enquirer was nominated last year for the prestigious Pulitzer Prize for its exposé of the hypocrisy of presidential candidate John Edwards’ sexual antics.

Of course, papers like the National Inquirer sometimes invent fantastic stories that nobody takes seriously.  Some – especially Murdoch’s - can be grossly sexist and xenophobic, feeding the ugliest kind of populism.

There are those, such as the German tabloid Bild, which enjoy indulging in what I would call stunt journalism – creating a story with some madcap activity, usually to make some public figure look foolish. It is dubious journalism, but often funny all the same.

I don’t wish to deny or excuse the fact that some of the British tabloids have gone beyond all the bounds of decent behaviour, leading to the current crisis. This frenzy was fed by cutthroat competition between and within the tabloids, and the sense of impunity which came with Murdoch’s cosy relationship with the British authorities and his contempt for any rules of decency.

It happened in three stages, and although each stage brought fresh revulsion, the authorities and the Press Complaints Commission did not seem to have the will and conviction to stop it. At first, the London tabloids targeted public figures and tore them apart relentlessly. They could at least argue though that they were serving a public interest by scrutinising the conduct of those who lived off taxpayers’ money.

At the next stage, they became extremely intrusive, respecting no boundaries for any public figure. It was the age of paparazzi, when anyone in the news could expect to be engulfed by media attention. This was the period when they recorded Prince Charles expressing his desire to be his lovers’ tampon, and tabloid photographers took some blame for the accident that led to Princess Diana’s death. It was when these newsrooms got to stage three – when they started to harass ordinary people in this way – that things went too far even for a tolerant British society.

Britain, though, is the extreme example. France does not have such newspapers (though it does have magazines) and has strict rules of privacy, even for public figures. The Americans have brought us tabloid television. In Japan, Italy and Spain the tabloids focus much more on sport. In Africa, tabloids have given us a mix of some of the most lively and some of the most questionable journalism. And of course the Internet has brought us a new form of citizen “tabloidism”, allowing all sorts of individuals to indulge in intrusive and speculative reporting.

In South Africa, tabloidism is a relatively new phenomenon. The extraordinary success of the Daily Sun, which shot quickly to three times the size of any other daily, brought a spate of popular newspapers of various kinds. These racy new papers have grown our newspaper market, finding a new working-class readership while our traditional papers have stagnated or shrunk.

The Daily Sun has carved out a particular South African style – no page three girls, no celebrities, lots of stories of tokoloshes and other weird and wonderful things, but also it gives us the voices and lives of working-class South Africans which seldom appear in most of the rest of the media. It is about the only paper genuinely bursting the suburban bubble, and has become an occasional must-read for anyone trying to understand this country.

For a while, it had a team dedicated to helping people get their IDs. When it published the worst cases of those who had been waiting for years, the authorities often issued the documents within a day or two. They called it “Sun Power”, appropriately. It also carries a good deal of self-improvement and home education material, which research shows to be among the best read parts of the paper.

So when we attack Murdochism, let’s not attack all tabloids. Let’s tackle the excesses, and prevent the worst of these practices coming here. Let’s differentiate between the scumbag papers and the better tabloids. And let’s remember that without these tabloids, we would have far fewer newspaper readers, a far duller press and much less media diversity. DM

  • Anton Harber
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Anton Harber is the Caxton Professor of Journalism at Wits University and chair of the Freedom of Expression Institute.  He was a founding editor of the Mail & Guardian and an executive director of Kagiso Media. He co-edited the first two editions of The A–Z of South African Politics (Penguin, 1994/5), What is Left Unsaid: Reporting the South African HIV Epidemic (Jacana, 2010) and Troublemakers: The best of SA’s investigative journalism (Jacana, 2010). He was executive producer of the television series, Ordinary People and Hard Copy. Harber’s book Diepsloot was published by Jonathan Ball in May 2011.

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