There are now three almost identical tabloid newspapers competing in their efforts to misinform workers in Britain.Capitalism — the accumulation of wealth through the exploitation of working-class labour-power—is the inevitable social development of commodity-production to the point where abundance becomes possible; and where only the circumscriptions of the profit-system itself prevent society from freely producing and enjoying wealth.
But where—an innocent inquirer might ask—does all this leave us when we turn our attention to such seemingly useless ephemera as the popular—some would call it ‘gutter’—press? And in particular, Fleet Street’s undistinguished and indistinguishable troika. The Sun, the Daily Mirror and The Star. A cooker, after all, is a cooker; a car is a car; and although these commodities are coming off the production-lines even tinnier and more unreliable than their tinny and unreliable predecessors, they do have their practical uses—their more tangible qualities.
A moment’s reflection, however, should be sufficient to convince us that, despite its tawdry and fleeting characteristics, a tabloid—or a so-called “quality” newspaper— is no less a commodity, produced for sale with a view to profit, than those other more substantial items. (Last year, for instance, The Sun produced a profit of more than £13 million— a considerable figure by any standards).
Here, however, the analogy ends; for a newspaper, unlike the cooker and the car. has little material value. (If, that is to say, we except its undoubted uses as wrapping-paper for fish-and-chips, or as fire-lighting material). Its qualities are self-evidently abstract and representational and, under capitalism, on a par with those of a megaphone in the hands of a political huckster. For what we buy from our newsagent is, after all, merely what the capitalist press-lords think is ‘good’ for us and, of course, for them: their own political opinions, to begin with. And what is ‘good’ for us often includes their idea of the type of material which can most successfully seduce us from the dangerous exercise of thinking for ourselves. Hence, the acreage of easy-on-the-eye illustrations ("We liberated the nipple”, roared The Sun, recently) and the column-miles of trivial rubbish which occupy most of what remains. Those few journalists—and there are some, no doubt—who are allowed to submit meatier copy are either chosen for their relatively uncontentious political and economic views or kept well away from such delicate areas. (When, for example, can we expect to see the likes of Marjorie Proops discussing family or marital distress within its proper context—that of a class-based society in which, given the intolerable pressures to which millions of us are subjected, it is astonishing that many more of us do not succumb to breakdown and despair!)
Ironically enough, some insight as to the true nature and purpose of the tabloid press may be gained by comparing titles with content. The very last qualities one may expect to find within the columns of The Sun, the Daily Mirror and The Star are enlightenment or a reliable reflection of the truth; certainly about those matters which could be of any conceivable value for working-class consciousness—and all three journals claim to reflect or illuminate our aspirations and interests. At best they are shallow and uninformative and. particularly when it comes to news of world affairs, as prone to sins of omission as of commission. At worst they are vicious exploiters of personal grief and human weakness, their editors and reporters trawling for salacious gossip, cheque-books in hand, in the murkiest of waters; always ready, of course, to justify their miserable activities with hypocritical references to ‘the freeflow of information in a democratic society’. In between these two fairly approximate poles we have the more conventional forms of entertainment—pages and pages of it, crammed with sensational trivia masquerading as the truth about showbiz and sports personalities, together with exaggerated accounts of the latest gladiatorial contests in the boxing-ring or on the sports-field. (The Romans had a phrase for it all: “panis et circensis”—bread and circuses!—very useful for keeping the otherwise restless plebians from overturning the patricians’ apple-cart)
Finally, there is the inevitable commercial advertising of a type which is deliberately aimed at what is sometimes revealingly termed the ‘down-market’ consumer.
Naturally the three doughty and almost identical warriors are busily tearing each other’s throats out in the interests of what they would euphemistically describe as ‘healthy competition’. The circulation of The Sun, for example, has now substantially overhauled that of the Daily Mirror which—or so The Observer (8/10/78) would have it—has cheapened (how? one wonders!) its product in its efforts to re-capture its market. The Star seems to be wallowing in the wake, not only of its main competitors, The Sun and the Daily Mirror, but also of its sister-publication, the Daily Express. (This latter newspaper and the Daily Mail constitute the remaining prime sources of mis-information in tabloid form). And this despite a truly heroic effort to outdo them all in journalistic mediocrity. (Perhaps Victor Matthews, its proprietor, was hoping to emulate the remarkable success of The Sun, the title of which had been acquired by Rupert Murdoch in 1969 for £600,000—IPC. from whom he bought it, are still licking their wounds, no doubt!) But there must surely be a limit to the amount of junk-journalism which an already-overloaded market is able to absorb.
However, all newspaper owners do share one overriding interest: the preservation of the political status quo; whether that be under the ‘chairpersonship’ (how appropriate that ambiguous word seems in this context!) of Margaret Thatcher (currently championed by The Sun and The Star) or James Callaghan (favoured by the Daily Mirror). Nobody can accuse Victor Matthews and Rupert Murdoch, or the owners of IPC, of timidity when it comes to the defence of the capitalist system. And it is increasingly apparent that they will go to any lengths in terms of journalistic incontinence in order to succeed.
Given this assumption we can safely draw a veil over that all-too-familiar nonsense we still hear from time to time about so-called editorial independence. By way of confirmation we have on record the words of no less a personage than the editor of The Sun himself, the aptly-named Larry Lamb. He is reported as saying (Observer, 8 October, 1978):
Mr Murdoch and I had a long discussion about the kind of newspaper we envisaged. It emerged, fortunately, that we had virtually identical concepts. We have never had a prolonged discussion about the policy of the newspaper since that night.
The venal Larry—self-styled ‘leftist branch secretary of ‘NALGO’ in his youth—has evidently found his true vocation.
And at shop-floor level? It is reliably reported that the Sun’s sub-editorial and other staff, working under that redoubtable editor, sneeringly dismiss their own product as “The Beano".