Have newspapers got nastier?

Is public discourse and reasoned debate to be nurtured or stamped on? British society is perhaps more polarised than at any time in living memory. Is the Press’ intemperance a symptom of this or part of the cause? Liz Gerard reports.

By Liz Gerard

Have newspapers got nastier?

Gary Lineker is a holier-than-thou hypocrite, John Bercow a preening vicious, small-minded martinet. Harriet Harman and Tessa Jowell are paedophile apologists, Nicola Sturgeon the most dangerous woman in Britain. A newsreader wearing a hijab is being deliberately provocative and, as for refugees and immigrants, they are, of course cockroaches swarming, flooding and sneaking into our country.

Oh, and don’t forget Sir Shifty, Lord Sleaze, Sir Cover-Up, Lord Fraud, Sir Spin, Baroness Bra and Mrs U-Turn. Or the embittered whingeing Remoaners (Bremoaners in the Daily Mail).

A robust Press is a sign, they say, of a robust democracy. But does it have to be so cruel? Has it always been that way? Are we of the snowflake tendency so scared of free speech, so easily offended that we can’t cope with the sort of rambunctiousness that has been the hallmark of the popular prints for centuries?

Or has it got uglier? And if so, when did it happen, why did it happen – and does it matter?

Is it a phenomenon of the digital age, of anything-goes social media and no-holds-barred below-the-line comments? Has society become less deferential everywhere, so that no one feels constrained any more in saying what they think? Has the Press fostered the angry tone of the public conversation – exemplified by the Brexit debate - or does it merely reflect it?

Attacking Press freedom?

Some newspapers’ coverage of immigration has become so heated that a number of organisations – including the UN, the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance, and the Equality and Human Rights Commission - have asked them to quieten down. Lobby groups, such as Stop Funding Hate, have urged advertisers to pull away from such papers; the students union at our leading journalism university has declared that there is “no place for them” on campus. The Institute of Race Relations has linked crimes ranging from harassment to murder to the way newspapers portray immigrants. Hacked Off and 38 Degrees fought for Leveson II and the implementation of Section 40.

But nothing deters our best-selling papers. Indeed, such challenges seem to goad them into an even greater frenzy of righteous pontification on the freedom of the Press – as though the freedom to say what you like trumps the freedom to live in safety.

Celebrities, too, are seen as fair game. Put yourself in the public eye and you are immediately deemed to have “invaded your own privacy”. If you are paid to deliver someone else’s words on stage or film or to kick a ball, then that is all you should do. Heaven help you if you dare to express an opinion about anything outside of your immediate remit – especially if, like Lineker, you work for the BBC and are thus paid from the public purse.

Freedom of speech is for the Press, not for celebs. The columnists will rubbish what you have to say, concede in half a sentence your right to say it, then question why anyone would want to listen. If you open your mouth repeatedly, it is open season with bullying, harassment, hectoring and ridicule so that you can’t even take your children to school in peace.

98% say ‘Yes’

Last month, SubScribe conducted an online survey asking, “Have our newspapers got nastier?” It was thoroughly unscientific, in the way that the Daily Express’s daily polls asking, “Should Britain get out of Europe NOW?” are. The respondents were self-selected and predisposed to follow the line of the question. So, the 98% ‘Yes’ was pretty well a given, and pretty irrelevant. What was interesting was the number of responses – more than 500 – and people’s enthusiasm in grasping an opportunity to say what they think about the Press.

Common themes were despondency at what were seen as attacks on foreigners, Muslims, women, LGBT people, the NHS and the BBC. The NHS was mentioned surprisingly frequently. Hundreds returned to the old complaint that lies could be printed in giant type on page one and corrections in tiny type on page 93. In fact, most newspapers have a set position for corrections and clarifications that is always there even when there is nothing to correct. The Independent Press Standards Organisation recognises this and generally requires papers to put their corrections in that slot. On rare occasions, papers are ordered to acknowledge their shortcomings on the front and to run a full adjudication on a specific page inside (perhaps not so rare, with the Express being required to do this twice in a week in February).

Respondents came from all walks of life – soldiers, teachers, health workers, businessmen, civil servants, shop workers - and included people from their early 20s to their late 70s. Dozens of journalists took part and all were disappointed at what was becoming of their trade. But again, it should be emphasised that the survey was self-selecting and so those who think all is hunky dory were unlikely to bother.

Blurred lines

Those who did, noted an erosion of the boundary between news and comment. IPSO legitimises this to an extent by accepting that splash headlines can be statements of opinion. But should the Express be using “Remoaner” for people opposed to Brexit in the text of a news story as though the word were a noun just like doctor or carpenter?

Asked to identify when papers started getting nastier (if, indeed, they had), 80 per cent of respondents said the last five or ten years, and cited the decline in sales and the rise in social media. The Daily Mail scored a 100% hit rate in answer to the question “Do you think any of these papers are too nasty?”

“Anger sells” was a constant refrain. Well good news has never sold – as The New Day found to its cost last year – unless it’s the sort of good news that unites the country, such as a royal wedding or beating Germany at football.

As one former Sun executive said: “Papers, tabloids mainly, have always been capable of nastiness – because being nasty sells while being nice doesn’t. But the big difference is the absence of wit. Kelvin MacKenzie was brutal plenty of times, but there was usually a laugh tucked up somewhere. Today, I just see nastiness and a race to the bottom.

“I can see a clear moment when nastiness became the order of the day. Around 2003-5, The Sun was casting around for a replacement for Richard Littlejohn, who had gone back to the Mail. The paper hired a columnist whose aim was to be as rude as possible to as many people as possible. But there was no wit and the page became a relentless barrage of bar-room prejudices. The Mirror went down the same road. The aim was to have columnists so rude and jaw-droppingly offensive that a paragraph from them trailed on page one would pull in readers. It didn’t work. Readers were turned off. But it was the road that led inexorably to Katie Hopkins calling migrants cockroaches, which – after 40 years in Fleet Street – remains the most irresponsible and inflammatory thing I can recall seeing in print.”

Another former Sun journalist agreed that there had been a change for the worse, but dated it further back. She said: “Yes, The Sun got into trouble and the Mail was smug, but there was usually some element of tongue-in-cheek humour to lighten things. I think everything got nastier with Thatcher and never recovered.

“Once upon a time, the front-page splash was at least a semblance of news, now quite often it is comment and the headlines spell out the paper’s precis of the comment to follow. Many of my former journalist friends are unable to stomach reading today’s papers and have chucked out their TVs.”

Julian Petley, professor of journalism at Brunel University, also identifies the Thatcher era as a key moment: “The Tory Press has always been pretty vile towards its ideological enemies, but a new ferocity came in as it hitched itself to Thatcher’s crusade to destroy socialism. Now the Tories and the client Press lurch ever further to the right, the target is liberalism.

Enemies of the people

“The British Press has always made a specialism of manufacturing folk devils in order to terrify its readers into accepting the need for the smack of firm government, but when judges and civil servants join the ranks of the demonised, it really is time to start worrying.”

Listing the Mail, Sun, Star, Express and Telegraph as being “too nasty”, Petley continued: “Most of these papers’ stock in trade is setting what they take to be the majority at the throats of minorities. Hence endless stories, many completely untrue, about immigrants, scroungers, Muslims and so on and on. This isn’t journalism at all, but rather a virulent poison coursing through the veins of our society.”

Other observers agreed that the 80s were a black period and pointed to The Sun’s Hillsborough coverage and the Gotcha! headline after the sinking of the Belgrano – “dancing on the graves of enemy soldiers” as one survey respondent described it – but some believed that was the low point and that today’s papers are better behaved.

Roy Greenslade, a former Mirror editor who is now a journalism professor at City University, was an assistant editor at The Sun in the early 80s. He takes a different view from our other Sun executives of the MacKenzie era: “The 1980s were a wild-west period when both politicians and celebrities were treated very roughly: people climbing ladders to see into Russell Harty’s hospital ward as he lay dying; accusing Elton John of tying a rent boy to a tree (The Sun had to pay him £1m); the treatment of Kinnock, Benn and Foot on a daily basis, with phony psychiatrists putting them ‘on the couch’; stories about ‘loony left’ councils and Eastern Europeans eating swans that were all myths.

“Then there was the Kinnock lightbulb and Graham Taylor as a turnip. Everyone in the sports department hated that, but it was forced on them by Kelvin. And, of course there was the hounding of a certain princess – although that was less clear-cut because she colluded in so much of what was written. But since MacKenzie moved on, there has been a softer tone at The Sun.

The main men

“The Sun and the Mail are the papers that count and they are the constructions of two men: MacKenzie and Paul Dacre. The Sun is not misbehaving as much as it used to, and I can’t imagine that anyone in the future will be as nasty as Dacre when he finally retires.”

At 68, Dacre shows no sign of retiring - any more than Rupert Murdoch seems ready to take a back seat at 86. Both seem to be relishing the May-Trump era. Murdoch was on hand to listen to Michael Gove interview Trump and Greenslade notes that Dacre has “finally found in May a prime minister he can admire”. Quite apart from Brexit, she has already acted on three issues highlighted by the Mail: the distribution of foreign aid, drivers using mobile phones and the cost to the NHS of “health tourism”.

Dacre’s law influences not only his own newspaper and the present government, it also holds sway over the rest of Fleet Street: for he has chaired the Editors’ Code committee for the past seven years. He has now stepped down and the code is under revision, but he was still in position for the publication of a handbook to accompany the code at the end of last year, when he declared that newspapers now behaved more responsibly than at any time in his 45-year journalistic career.

So, not for the first time, let us give Mr Dacre the last word: “For too many politicians, employees of the subsidy-cushioned media and so-called academic journalists, the mainstream British Press can do no good. This is both regrettable and dangerous.

“We should be proud of the industry’s countless magnificent campaigns that fight for the voiceless. We should be proud of the brilliant investigations that hold power to account.”