Tabloid Journalism: The Press We Demand

24/11/2011 22:34 GMT | Updated 24/01/2012 10:12 GMT

It's been suggested that we get the press we deserve. But the reality is that we probably get the press we demand.

Nobody forces anyone to buy tabloid newspapers but they do. So while newspaper sales have fallen over the past decade, the tabloids remain kings of the newsstand, outselling their broadsheet rivals by millions every week.

The tabloid diet sells. The UK loves stories involving celebrities, sex, drugs and rock and roll. We love to see people in high places fall from grace. And we love to watch nobodies live the dream - provided we can watch their fall in full Technicolor afterwards.

But the tabloid story diet is relatively limited. And that's the way we like it. It's not that journalists have limited imagination. Far from it. But we are all drawn to the same basic story lines. All journalists have to do is change the names and pictures. Christopher Brooker's excellent book, The Seven Basic Plots, will tell you so much more if you can find the time to read it.

Triumph Over Tragedy

Take, for example, the Triumph Over Tragedy or TOT. Here we see someone at their wits' end. A high flyer will have lost her job. Her marriage has crumbled. She's taken to the bottle. But something deep inside clicks and she claws her way back. It's a story of hope, of courage and of the resilience of the human spirit. And we love to read it.

Other stories offer us despair. How the mighty are fallen is a story of ultimate disappointment. It says that people in high places will always let you down. We will meet a successful person who has it all - the house, the job, the life, the wife. But somehow he can't resist the self-destruct button. It's a story ultimately of the futility of the human spirit - and we love it too.

Cultural DNA

The more "unbelievable" the story, the more it reassures us, the readers, about the nature of our world. In our cultural DNA there must be basic assumptions about the way things are: nobody deserves to do well; those who do, must do so on the backs of others; and when they do, they will, in time, get their comeuppance.

Is there something in our culture that encourages these story lines? Is it about Schadenfreude - that we delight in the misfortunes of others? Perhaps that.

Or maybe we just like to know that others are doing less well than us - a kind of misery relativism.

It is Attila the Hun thinking: it's not enough that I must be happy, everyone else must be miserable.

The tabloids offer us stories we clearly like to read - and therefore buy. Newspapers are not charities. They are businesses. And if these stories did not sell, they would not spend a penny on them.

Of course, the newspapers don't operate in a vacuum. They have a symbiotic relationship with key institutions.

Popular television heavily relies upon the tabloids. Both the X Factor and Britain's Got Talent deliver year in, year out on stories such as Rags to Riches and A Star is Born. New celebrities are created. Just watch the way that both programmes frame apparent no-hopers and show us their transformation in a neatly packaged, you tube ready mini saga. They then get given acres of coverage establishing them as key figures in the public mind.

As they rise to fame, so they will fall, in time, one and all.

How the mighty are fallen

Enter Stage Right: how the mighty are fallen. Here we will see examples of how those who now have fame can't cope, and how they implode through excess drinking, drug taking and the chaos of ordinary lives falling to bits (in public, of course). There are stories there too: how he left is real friends behind and died in a lonely bedsit (we have the pictures).

So we are partly to blame. If we stopped buying this news diet, there would be no demand.

But what the Leveson Inquiry has shown is that in their hunt for facts that will fill out the story lines the tabloids have gone too far.

It's not acceptable to tail the rich and famous for days on end but one can understand why journalists and editors would have sanctioned such expenditure. They will operate on the basis that everyone has something to hide - it's just a question of digging for long enough and you will find it.

The sad truth is that people so love these stories that it often won't matter whether all of the facts are utterly true. Readers are not idiots. Research shows that journalists are amongst the least trusted people in the UK - along with politicians. But this matters not a jot because they so want to believe these stories that they will crawl out of bed on wet Sunday mornings to savour tales of human grief.

The tragic truth is that nobody, not journalists and certainly not readers, wants the facts (of the lack of them) to get in the way of a good story.