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2015 – a year in tabloid front pages

Headlines drive sales, so the choice of front page headline and picture says a lot about a newspaper’s priorities, outlook and what it thinks are the hopes and fears of its readership. Liz Gerard has analysed every front page from 2015 for the five daily tabloids. This is the story they told.

By Liz Gerard

They flooded in and they poured in. They stormed the barricades and they stowed themselves away. One ran – or maybe walked – the 30 miles to our promised land.

In Calais, they threatened lorry drivers and a little girl was killed. They forced up the price of greengrocery and they sang hymns.

And when they reached Kent, they marched and they swarmed across Britain. They drove down wages. They had babies. They were ferried around in stretch limos, and those who were repulsed were packed off back home in private jets.

If you thought Britain hadn’t been invaded since 1066, you clearly haven’t been reading the papers for the past year. We are being overrun by foreigners: there are half a million of them, a million, five million, eight million, already here or heading this way.

The Year of the Migrant

For the tabloid press, 2015 was the year of the migrant. Stories about foreigners made the lead story for the Mail, Express, Star, Sun and Mirror well over 100 times last year. Nearly all were about migrants (the word ‘refugee’ was barely employed), although there were also a handful about “health tourists” and foreign aid. And they were almost universally hostile.

At the beginning of September, a photograph emerged of a toddler lying face down on the shoreline in Turkey. Aylan Kurdi and his brother had drowned in the Mediterranean, along with their mother, as their family tried to sail the short distance to Kos.

In fact, two photographs emerged. Only the Independent chose to use the stark picture of the boy in the water. The tabloids all preferred one of him being held by a soldier, whose size and strength served to emphasise the fragility of the tiny body in his arms.

For a moment, the cacophony subsided. The Sun demanded that Cameron do something and announced its own campaign to raise funds for Save the Children and to urge British families to offer refugees foster homes. It raised £1.2m within a week.

But by the end of the month, it was business as usual with the Express and Mail lashing out in all directions – but most especially at the EU - about the human tide they were convinced was heading this way and that had to be stopped. The redtops generally kept their distance from the fray, producing only 23 of the year’s migration-based splashes. The whitetops came up with 85 between them – and the Express had a further 40 goes in subsidiary stories or puffs such as:

“Immigration scandal: 624,000 migrants flood into Britain (well we did warn you)”,

“How dare they! Migrants camp at our 7/7 memorial”

… and the counter-intuitive “Why Britain has a duty to help the desperate Libyan migrants”.


The “migrant crisis” was, of course, an offshoot of the real story of the year: terrorism and the civil war in Syria. The attacks in Paris at the beginning and end of 2015 and the massacre on the beach in Tunisia in June, with its high British death toll, were among only six news stories to lead every paper – the others being the Germanwings air crash, the general election and the July Budget. The Egyptian plane bombing didn’t provoke the same interest, even with thousands of British holidaymakers being forced to extend their holidays by Cameron edict, and only the Daily Star was moved by the museum massacre in Tunisia in March. Everyone else was more concerned with what Mr Osborne had been up to in Westminster.

The Star may be most noted for its obsession with reality TV, but it has a capacity to surprise on big news stories and it did so with the Tunisian beach killings, when it cleared its front to produce the best page of the day.

But early Friday deadlines caught up with it and its sister, the Express, on the night of the November attacks in Paris. Staff on all the other papers worked through the night to end up with dramatic covers (as well as spreads inside and constantly updated websites). The Star and Express looked feeble by comparison with run-of-the-mill splashes and Saturday puffs intact. The Express couldn’t even bear to part with its waves-pummelling-the-shore photograph.

The Mail also clung to its giant puff and the Mirror staff must have been gutted that their advertising colleagues should have sold a wraparound for this of all nights. Readers passing the newsstands will have seen not their efforts, but an Aldi Christmas pud.

The full page treatment

So what did it take to persuade the papers to drop the puff and go all out on a story?

The Mail did it twice for David Cameron – once to celebrate his election win and once to launch upon the nation one of the belly laughs of the year: the serialisation of Michael Ashcroft’s book and its probably unfounded “pig-gate” allegations. The Shoreham air show disaster, the November budget and the December floods also got the full-page treatment.

The Mirror also gave the election a couple of front pages to itself, though it was less enthusiastic than the Mail about Mr Cameron’s return to No 10.

In common with the Sun, the Mirror also made the Charlie Hebdo murders and Cilla Black’s funeral one-subject fronts.

The Express was distraught about Cilla’s death and led on it nine times between August 3 and 21. But the paper firmly believes in offering readers variety – on the day, if not day to day – and only one person could persuade it to deviate from that policy: Her Majesty.

The paper’s sole all-out front was on the day the Queen became Britain’s longest-reigning monarch (even if half the page was devoted to promoting the paper’s supplement). The Sun, with its republican owner, took a similar decision, with a rather less forelock-tugging headline.

Except it didn’t – quite. I now see that the Sun’s version was rather neatly tied in with Wayne Rooney’s record-breaking England goal (‘Long to Wayne over us’). Ah well.

Royals etc

Royals and footballers, where would the tabs be without them?

The royals made 92 front-page appearances in the Express last year, including 27 photographs of the Duchess of Cambridge and 26 of the Queen. Footballers and their sport meanwhile produced 47 splashes for the redtops – mostly for activities that most of us would regard as beyond the law.

Crime is another banker, making the splash 95 times in 2015, with the murder of Becky Watts and the conviction of her stepbrother and his girlfriend one of the big “live” stories of the year. Then there was the £14m Hatton Garden diamond raid – a real old-school story with that wonderful photograph of the hole in the wall. Yet only the Sun and Star were interested. The Express managed a puff and the Mirror woke up when the age of the perpetrators emerged, but even then, the Mail thought Camilla a better front-page subject.

It’s surprising how infrequently what you might call hard news finds its way to the top of the agenda. Tabworld is like a family where each member has his or her set function, and breaking news can disturb the equilibrium.

Introducing the tabloid family

The Mail is the matriarch in her starched pinny, a little vain, tolerant of male foibles, but definitely not of the sisterhood. She likes things to be just so and gets very cross if they are not. She may even stamp her foot. The Express is grandad sitting in his armchair with his cardi, slippers and pipe, chuntering about the way things used to be. The Mirror is the earnest uni student, thinking good thoughts, kind to animals, and caring about others, but struggling to get her voice heard at the dinner table. The Sun is the larky younger brother, smarter than he appears and always out to make a joke. He’s growing up, though, and surprised everyone at the beginning of the year by giving up his obsession with bare-breasted women. The Star, as the pubescent baby of the family, happily took over that hobby. He watches a lot of telly and footie and is always hoping for a glimpse of the girls’ knickers (or, with luck, what’s under them). He spends most of his time in his bedroom.

For the children of the family, showbusiness is the staple and, as such, accounted for by far the most splashes last year, almost half of which were supplied by the Star.

For the Star, the year starts and ends with Big Brother, with Britain’s Got Talent, X Factor, Bake Off, Strictly and the Jungle filling in the gaps. Most of the competitions are, it believes, fixed. But that doesn’t stop it following every twist and turn. Moments of boredom between shows are relieved by psycho seagulls, monster rats, testicle-eating jellyfish, and black-eyed ghost children.

Mummy Mail (she is too posh to be called Mum) and Grandad don’t care much for showbusiness, but they did like Cilla, so they sat up and took notice when she died.

Finance, health & gardening

They are much more concerned with their own and the nation’s finances. Mummy is very political. She is always on the lookout for hypocrisy and greed, although she sees no problem in trying to better herself and is not above wanting to be a buy-to-let tycoon. Grandad is forever worrying about his savings and pension. And his health. And the weather.

The adults are all a bit hypochondriacal. This year, they’ve discovered that bananas, chocolate, mushrooms, grapes, eggs, tea, coffee and butter are good for you, that the Mediterranean and caveman diets can help them to live longer and that rhubarb could actually save their lives. They have also learnt that bacon might give them cancer and fizzy drinks could trigger heart failure (they learnt that twice, as it happens, once in September and again in November). Alcohol – and specifically wine – is troublesome. It might be beneficial or it might kill them.

They particularly fear memory loss and dementia, diabetes, arthritis, back pain and cancer, and were pleased to report several new tests to diagnose such conditions plus breakthroughs in treatment. There will be new vaccines, drugs and operations and there are lifestyle changes that can ward off the worst. Key among these is to go for a walk. As they told us in January, March, May, June, July, September and November.

Or do a bit of gardening.

To encourage that, the whitetops like to offer free spring bulbs, summer-flowering plants and even bags of compost. No one in the family approves of scroungers, but they all love a freebie, whether it’s a bottle of vitamin pills or some chocolate coins for the Christmas tree. And they’re all for money-off vouchers that can be used at Aldi, Lidl, Poundland or M&S.

The thrift mentality extends to other people’s finances. Banks, energy companies, the NHS, police and charities have all been scrutinised and found wanting. Charities took a bashing from both the Mail and the Sun over their fundraising methods and their internal expenses. These investigations were probably partly triggered by the collapse of Kids Company and the suicide of a 92-year-old poppy seller who couldn’t cope with the demands being put on her by other fundraisers.

Hospitals and the police have also come under concerted fire over speed cameras and parking charges, although the papers don’t come up with alternative ideas for making up cash shortfalls.

Sitting in judgment

That’s the thing about tabloid journalism, you can ask questions and sit in judgment, but you don’t have to provide the answers.

There is also an uncomfortable selfishness about much of the questioning. The Mirror seems to be the only member of the family to understand the concept of sharing. The rest are far more concerned about not losing what is theirs than about helping those who have less or nothing. Poverty is not a subject that has loomed large, whereas benefits scroungers have been vilified.

In fact, very little outside their own cosy word troubles the family. Foreign affairs matter only where Brits might be in danger. Science is of interest only if it is going to produce a magical remedy. Even the most uplifting story of the year – that of Layla Richards, the baby who may have helped to find a cure for leukaemia – featured on only one tabloid front.

The Mirror is as capable as the rest of strident political statements – it uses a lot of pictures of David Cameron, frequently in a bow tie – but it beats them all when it comes to human interest stories about people not in the public eye.

Most pictured in 2015

David Cameron (83)

Duchess of Cambridge (67)

Jeremy Clarkson (57)

The Queen (55)

Cilla Black (54)

Rita Ora (39)

Ed Miliband (38)

Cheryl Fernandez Versini (32)

Princess Charlotte (32)

Nigel Farage (31)

Katie Price (30)