As long as we have had tabloids, we have had tabloid scandals.
Weighing in on the spate of scandals plaguing the British tabloid press, one commentator in 1936 acidly condemned what he called “the almost unbelievable indecency of the intrusion of the tabloid newspaper into people’s private lives.” Surely only the most degraded, low-minded people, he claimed, could produce this kind of news.
The article, from the magazine Fortnightly, was part of an ongoing debate in the interwar years about the intrusions of certain newspapers — the tabloids chief among them — into moments of “private grief.” The debate eventually made its way into the House of Commons, where major news agencies were encouraged to punish reporters who violated standards of decency in pursuit of a story. Surely, 75 years on, newspapers should have learned their lesson.
As recent events have shown, the tabloids have not lost their grip on indecent reporting, especially when it comes to breaches of privacy. Yet this is, I think, for the better.
Rupert Murdoch, in his grilling before a Parliamentary inquiry on Tuesday, said that he did not support an absolute right to privacy. He should be commended for that, even though many of the tactics used by journalists at his now-shuttered News of the World — hacking into the cellphone messages of crime victims, slain soldiers’ families, government officials and members of the royal family, and paying police sources for information — were beyond the pale of acceptable reporting.
One does not have to support illegal activity in order to defend intrusive reporting. Perhaps intrusiveness is “indecent,” but who’s to say that is reason enough to tighten restrictions or create new laws to prevent it (or create another flaccid governmental investigation into the activities of the press, as Prime Minister David Cameron has ordered)? The concepts of privacy and decency are so slippery (and class-bound) that they are not really the stuff of effective (or desirable) legislation when it comes to the press.
Leaving aside the illegal activities of News of the World, part of Mr. Murdoch’s News Corporation empire, the truth is that the vast majority of the tabloids carry out their news coverage above board. They are not an external source of infection, slowly contaminating the mainstream press, but rather an extension, and often an exaggeration, of the basic logic that animates all news reporting.
Every journalist, not only those working for the tabloids, is called upon to take risks in the pursuit of truth — usually within agreed-upon limits. And it is true that, to a remarkable degree, even the most egregious news outlets adhere to those limits. The tabloids may be sneakier and more persistent than more respected news sources, but this is a matter of degree, not kind.
The tabloids may test the limits of the ethically or legally acceptable, but they are often doing so in the service of a popular desire to see behind the facade of public life. They rely on the appeal (a very human one) of seeing elements of our societies that are often shamefully hidden away from view.
The tabloids are the newspapers most dutifully dedicated to ideas of exposure, and are willing to take risks in the service of that goal. It may be the case that much of what they expose is perhaps of little social import, but this is more a matter of taste, and the tabloids certainly never claimed to be tasteful. Certainly the fact that the American tabloids first broke important news stories, like the extramarital affair of John Edwards, the former United States senator and Democratic vice-presidential nominee, suggests that they are not merely peddling insignificant gossip.
Watching the painfully choreographed, and highly policed, red-carpet arrival of Prince William and Kate Middleton at a recent Los Angeles polo match reminded me why intrusive journalistic tactics are often called upon. They exist to break down the barriers of access that keep social elites at a remove from ordinary people. The tabloids, throughout history, on both sides of the Atlantic, have been predicated on chipping away at that division. They play a fundamental role in democratic cultures, especially in societies characterized by the pull between the demands of a mass society and the persistence of social and economic inequality.
Of course, not all of the hacking at the center of the News of the World scandal had to do with social elites. Some very ordinary, private people have been harmed merely because their lives had been touched by horrible crimes — perhaps most sensitively, the terrorist bombings of the London transit system on July 7, 2005.
Certainly laws protecting citizens from wiretapping and computer hacking should apply just as readily to those people, but that does not lead inevitably to the conclusion that any coverage of ordinary people, even if it might be considered invasive, should not be allowed, or even that it should be condemned as indecent.
Within limits, digging into private lives and exposing unsettling information is, and will most likely remain, a basic feature of popular culture in the West.
The work of the tabloids can be irritating, provocative, ethically questionable and even (as the scandal spectacularly shows) highly illegal, but when practiced according to existing laws, tabloid journalism can be an important player in modern culture, helping to mitigate some of the central tensions in democratic society. Journalism has always been marked by a battle to define the boundaries of acceptable investigative behavior. The tabloids — just as they ought — constantly test those boundaries.
Ryan Linkof, a lecturer in history at the University of Southern California who wrote a doctoral dissertation on the origins of tabloid photojournalism in Britain.