The London tabloid scandal has tossed up any number of villains: Rupert and James Murdoch, Rebekah Brooks (out now), Les Hinton, Andy Coulson (arrested), British politicians like Prime Minister David Cameron and on Thursday, in a charge made by temporarily-out-of-jail, former-press-lord Conrad Black in the Financial Times, the entire British establishment, to which he himself gained entrée through his newspaper clout. Penance for everyone. The only group that has gotten a relatively free pass here is the very engine of Murdoch's success in Britain -- and that of the larger tabloid world there: the newspaper-consuming public. Sure, pols cravenly kowtowed to the tabloid press, particularly the Murdoch papers. But what gave those papers such power? Well, vast numbers of Brits went out every day and picked up copies of The Sun or the Daily Mail or The Telegraph, with a little chaser of the News of the World on Sunday. They did not turn away because of topless girls on page 3, or vicious attacks on politicians, royalty or sports stars, or even invasions of privacy. As so many have said (suggesting the emergence of a necessary meme to this scandal; all scandals require such lessons), the reading public didn't mind invasions of privacy as long as it was the famous or powerful; the public turned when it became clear ordinary folks were the objects of hacking and prying -- a violation of the tabloid pact with The People.
Holman Jenkins touched on this point Thursday in the Murdoch-owned Wall Street Journal (his being one of the few op-eds the WSJ has run on the story):
The tabloid excess on display here, we dare to suggest, is the British public's, for its acceptance of the tabloid proposition that movie stars, politicians and anybody deemed a celebrity has no rights -- only supposed 'real' people have rights. During the period when she was only known to be missing, had Milly Dowler been the AWOL daughter of a TV host, hacking her phone probably would have been seen as good fun at the expense of the toffs.
Jenkins has a point, though it's undercut by the ownership issue, giving off a faint aroma of excuse making for the boss.
Let's face another fact: In New York journalistic circles, the British tabloids have long been a source of furtive wonder and envy. That closeted admiration dovetailed with the grudging admiration of Murdoch that surfaced when he sought to buy Dow Jones. Like the British tabs, Murdoch might be a little rough (and Fox, on our shores, was viewed by many journalists as an abomination), but he had money, energy and success on his side; he seemed to be the inevitable future. He was a pragmatist with inky fingers! He was an Aussie Brit! While American newspaper reading sagged, the Brits continued to have (to American eyes) a vibrant, healthy, old-fashioned diversity of lively papers. Moreover, the American journalistic mind has long had a romantic weakness for tabloids and for swashbuckling publishers with a loose grasp on the truth from Pulitzer to Hearst to Murdoch. This has fostered a mild schizophrenia. While the journalistic head yearns toward a middle-class living, the respect of those in power, maybe a seat at the table and a small trophy or two, many a heart also thumped for the hard-drinking, bare-knuckled access to what Black condescendingly branded "the lumpenproletariat" readership of traditional tabs: Jimmy Breslin speaks truth to power. The problem in the U.S. is that this lumpenproletariat, the populist masses, the traditional working class, has been shredded, fragmented and mostly lost to TV. While the New York Daily News continues to write for some imagined working class, it's much diminished from decades past. And its rival, Murdoch's money-losing Post, has established itself as a sort of feisty, entertainingly naughty, second or third read for Manhattan's white-collar crowd.
These tensions have only increased as the American newspaper business suffered. The oddity here is that while the U.S. has a relatively tame and sparse tabloid press -- certainly compared to Fleet Street -- it has a ubiquitous tabloid media, which Murdoch both recognized and helped build in Fox. But it goes well beyond that. The Internet contains many things, but like television, many of its largest and must-trafficked sites have a clear, tabloid bent, from Drudge to Gawker to TMZ. Gossip, celebrity and populist impulses work on the Internet, particularly if you're in the traffic (or ratings) game. For all the talk of the long tail, numbers matter. And mass numbers, particularly in a competitive arena, leads to populism, whether of the left or right. It becomes political.
For years it's been a parlor game for American journalists to speculate why the Brits continued to have such a seemingly healthy newspaper business. The glib answer was that Brits had a "newspaper culture" -- whatever that means -- while Americans had a "magazine culture." But that gets us nowhere. Another commonplace was to ascribe it to Britain's class sensitivities, despite reports, every few years, that the British were becoming steadily less class conscious. How does that work? Well, most Americans are clueless about the realities of the complex British sense of class, embodied in accents, schools, clothes and newspapers. But maybe there's something there, a tribal loyalty of a class to a paper, that keeps readers buying. However, it seems likelier (and a lot less theoretical) that the newspapers hung on as a dominant information/entertainment media in Britain because television was, for so long, dominated by the BBC and a handful of other channels and the narrow-casting revolution that swept the U.S. with cable came far later in Britain. That partly explains why Murdoch so desperately wanted the rest of BSkyB. For all his love of the tabs, he may well have recognized that the combination of the Internet and far more expansive, if fragmented, television would eventually undermine print on paper, particularly for folks who buy his brand of journalism. The tabloid mentality would not die; it would only shift to video or digital. If that's the case, then he moved too late.
We have now ascended into the thin air of speculation. Might it be that the descent from populist invective and titillation in the British tabs to invasions of privacy, bribery and overt criminality came because the papers, notably the tabs, were growing desperate to hold their distracted audiences? Such behavior certainly doesn't reflect a sense of tabloid confidence; and, in truth, it does suggest a shift from defense of their readers or identification with class to outright cynicism and far worse. Competition can lead as easily -- perhaps more easily -- to a race to the bottom as to the top. We have seen that, as have the Brits, among the banks. We have also seen how the appearance of energy and dynamism can mask a deeper weakness, a desperate attempt to save the show -- in that popular TV expression that took me months to understand, "jumping the shark." If that's the case, the fall of Murdoch may truly represent bad news for tabloid newspaperdom in Britain. But it may well have been coming anyway.