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Saturday, March 01, 2008

In defence of tabloids

I like tabloids. There, I said it. I'm not a sexist neanderthal. I have an extensive education. I work in a decent job. I can understand abstract concepts. I also read a lot of broadsheets, magazines, websites and blogs.

But I like tabloids, and I think ironically that they get a very bad press.

This week, a court gave a convicted criminal and admitted fraudster nearly a million euro in a libel judgement against a tabloid, because they couldn't prove he was a drug dealer as they had said.

Now, the chap in question had already been forced to make a payment to the Criminal Assets Bureau, who have stated that they believed he had made substantial amounts of money in Britain through drugs trafficking.

But nevertheless, he sued for libel, and won 900,000 euro for the loss of his 'good name.' That's five times what you'd get if you lost your arm in an accident at work! For the loss of a criminal's good name.

After the verdict, Mr McDonagh went on air to blame tabloids for all the ills in Ireland today. I thought this was a bit rich. But then again, with a million in his pocket of the Sunday World's money, everything about Mr McDonagh is now a bit rich.

The paper is appealing and I hope they win. I found that judgement to be ridiculous. But I noted the glee among a certain class of people. They were delighted that a tabloid had been slapped down. Never mind that meant siding with a criminal. They were just chuffed to see a tabloid punished.

I read most if not all Irish papers daily. I find a lot of outdated assumptions prevail in relation to a lot of newspapers. Primarily those assumptions are held by people at the top rather than the bottom of the educational/social spectrum.

There is the assumption that the Irish Times is the best news source in the country, when it wouldn't be top ten.

Then there is the assumption about tabloids: 'I don't read tabloids myself, but I believe they're all soaps, celebs, sport and tits.' But they seem to forget that The Guardian is a tabloid (Berliner format? That's posh for tabloid.)

The Irish Indo is a tabloid. So is the London Times. So is the Daily Sport. And they're all different beasts. I agree that there is a similarity in the red-top market, where the Sun, Mirror, Star and Evening Herald all feature quite a similar news style, agenda and content. But they have different hacks, different sources and compete strongly for the news.

What is certain is that tabloids break news. They break the bulk of news stories in Ireland, I would argue. RTE, with their vast newsroom and highly paid dozens of correspondents, does manage to do breaking news extremely well. But I would argue the red tops break stories better than anyone else, in general. At least on weekdays.

I understand the criticism that tabloids dumb down stories. A pal of mine who ran a newsagent once described the red-tops as 'the Disney version of the news', a phrase I found memorable.

But I believe their value in breaking news more than outweighs po-faced moaning about sensationalism (of which the broadsheets are equally guilty) or dumbing down (which is just a snooty way of complaining that the tabloids communicate to people with less formal education than some other media outlets.)

I think it is especially important in this regard to tread extremely carefully when you encounter a criminal like McDonagh or yet another politician lambasting tabloids.

The fact is that they do not like being held to account. This goes double when their actions conflict with their public positions, or when they're caught with their snouts in the trough. This is why dictators like Mugabe have effectively banned the media.

Our politicians are no different, except in terms of degree. They too do not enjoy the scrutiny of the fourth estate. And while they can rely on the cosy consensus of the Dail bar contingent not to rock the boat, they find it somewhat more problematic to silence newspapers which are not reliant on the doling of leaks from ministers for exclusives.

In no shape or form would I ever defend everything the Irish tabloids do. The Brian Murphy coverage sticks out as appalling in my mind.

But I find it strange how the very people who lambast tabloids for sensationalism and so on always seem to forget that most of the most outrageous media stunts in recent times were committed by broadsheets which they revere.

I've seen people blaming tabloid culture on making up lies about Liam Lawlor being with a hooker at the time of his death in Moscow. No doubt many people think that is the case, but it isn't.

It was the respected broadsheeets the Sunday Independent and the Observer who peddled that lie, with the latter even inventing brothels in Prague that the late Mr Lawlor was alleged to have attended regularly.

Tabloids do cause some harm on occasion. I wouldn't say much. But so do all newspapers. In general though, I think we as a nation benefit from having such a dense and diverse media environment, and I include the national broadcaster, Newstalk, the regional papers and radio stations and the niche media like La and the news magazines in that too.

Ireland has the healthiest, by which I mean densest, media topography of anywhere. Rather than sneering about papers one doesn't read dahling, perhaps people should be happy that there is a choice available, rather than in most middle-size American cities (Dublin size and greater) which are often served by a single, poor quality local rag.

No one's forcing you to read the tabloids. If you're happy with the turgid press release rewrites that pass for news in the Irish Times, then bully for you.

But on the basis that it's preferable to speak on matters from the position of experience rather than ignorance, I would encourage everyone to take a day out sometime and read ALL the papers. You might find yourself surprised at the quality of news coverage throughout the Irish media.

Including the tabloids.


Missing Neighbour said...

An interesting article. I agree that a free press is one of the corner stones of a truly free society and that there should be room for many and varied points of view within the media. My own personal issue with tabloids (and indeed quite a number of newspapers) is that they are owned by a handful of people who insist on pushing their own agendas. The media should report the news not misrepresent it or indeed manufacture it. Quite often the media is used to whip the general populace into frenzy about what are in effect side issues that are used as battering rams to drive forward the political agenda of their billionaire/millionaire owner. Just look at the amount of editors who have lost their jobs when they chose not to toe the party line. A little more integrity from the journalists might improve people’s perceptions of the printed press.

JC Skinner said...

In Ireland we could badly do with more diverse media ownership. O'Reilly owns half the papers and O'Brien's working on owning half the radio. That's not healthy in a democracy, any more than a one party state would be.