x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Don't tar all the tabloids

Any attempt to mount a defence of tabloid journalism right now runs the risk of ridicule. All the more important then to do it.

There was a time when the News of the World published under the proud slogan "All Human Life is Here". Tomorrow that same title will publish its last ever edition following allegations of behaviour within its newsroom described by its chairman as "inhuman", if proven true.

It was the News International (NI) chairman James Murdoch who announced the closure of the newspaper on Thursday. But the hammer blow was surely dealt by his father, Rupert, mindful of the interests of his global media empire, News Corp. The fact that those interests might be better served by closing the newspaper that remained the market leader, selling 2.6 million copies every Sunday and counting a readership of more than 7.5 million is proof, were proof needed, of a brand tainted beyond belief. Truth be told it is hard to suggest any viable alternative to Murdoch's decisive action.

According to police, as many as 4,000 individuals may have had their phones hacked or messages intercepted by the newspaper's staff. NI has reportedly set aside a war chest of £120 million (Dh738 million) to cover the damages awarded in the law suits that will inevitably follow.

The allegations point to a rot run so deep that the fact that NI executives once hoped it would end where it began, with the convictions of the former royal editor Clive Goodman and the private detective Glenn Mulcaire, would be laughable were it not so depressing.

How shabby and paltry the tales of Prince William's injured knee and royal tittle tattle that sparked this scandal in 2006 now seem when set against last week's alleged targets: the families of the victims of London's 7/7 bombings, war widows of troops killed in Afghanistan and Iraq, the grieving families of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman and of 13-year-old Milly Dowler - victims in two of the most notorious child murder inquiries in recent times. Now it transpires these may have been hampered by hacks in pursuit of, well, what exactly? Heartbreakingly, messages accidentally deleted gave Milly's parents false hope that their daughter was still alive.

The depravity of such behaviour and the disgust it engenders run beyond words.

This was the tipping point, according to David Cameron, the British prime minister. The point beyond which members of the public who might be persuaded to accept that the victims up to then - "celebrities, publicists, politicians and other journalists" - probably deserve what they get, would go no further. This was "cruel and immoral". It was "a stain on British journalism". That inky stain has inched uncomfortably close to Mr Cameron with the arrest yesterday of his former director of communications and ex-News of the World editor Andy Coulson.

And, though that paper is closing, it continues to seep beyond its source.

The sad truth is that, though the allegations levelled point to a small cabal of executives at NI working over a particular period of time, those qualifying factors make very little impact when it comes to the general decrying of tabloid media. "Good riddance," many will have felt on hearing news of the paper's demise. Never mind that most of the 200 staff now unemployed are paying for the transgressions of others. In the same way tabloid journalists - indeed all British journalists - will find their jobs that bit harder today. Their reputations have been traduced and tarnished by association where, in truth, there is none.

Of course, any attempt to mount a defence of tabloid journalism right now runs the risk of ridicule. All the more important then to do it.

Because the guilt for crimes committed by individuals in one corporation should not be glibly assigned to every member of the press. Nor should the recent tawdry revelations wholly blot out what the News of the World once was.

It always favoured titillating stories, often straight from the courts and printed more fully than anywhere else. From 1843, it pushed boundaries and rattled the teacups of self-appointed guardians of morality of a Sunday morning. But, in the days when the lines of class divide were more deeply drawn in Britain, it did what good journalism does: it gave voice and platform to those who had neither. It championed the Working Class.

At its peak, in 1950, it was bought by 8.4 million people and read by three times that number. They read it because they enjoyed it, however furtively. The rich bought the Sunday Times or Observer then pinched their servants' copy of the Screws, as it was known. The latter-day equivalent was for shoppers to slip the guilty pleasure of the tabloid between more respectable broadsheets.

One wonders whether even the sop of all proceeds from this Sunday's edition going to charity will be enough to encourage many to buy the paper, openly or otherwise.

The NI chief executive Rebekah Brooks, resolutely still in place at the time of writing, showed a profound, or wilful, misunderstanding of the situation when she claimed that "The Guardian were out to get us, and they got us". But there is one flash of truth in this statement. The News of the World affair was pursued by journalists - the Guardian staff notable among them - and ones for whom good journalism continues to matter.

What did for the News of the World was the lack of such practice in an institution that once operated at the very highest levels. The Screws built their reputation on saucy tales, strong campaigning and world-beating scoops. But in an ever more competitive market those scoops got harder to guarantee. Daily sister paper The Sun saw to that. As did the then thriving Daily Mirror and Sunday Mirror and middle market tabloids, the Daily Mail and The Mail on Sunday forever extending their hold on a finite market.

The News of the World lost sight of what and who it was there for. Public interest gave way to prurience. The rise of celebrity culture, accompanied by an army of PRs spinning lies as truths and vice versa, didn't so much blur boundaries as trash them all together. The focus of the Screws, and its notoriously brutal, brutalising newsroom was simply to beat the competition.

This was about power and dominance. The bigger the beast, the more corrosive those guiding principles proved.

Wittingly or, as she would have it, unwittingly Rebekah Brooks and her successors presided over a regime where the means, however aggressive or intrusive, justified the ends, however questionable. This is not, it must be pointed out, an attempt to excuse illegality, rather to offer some insight into the extreme pressures under which staff operated.

People who have never set foot in a newsroom often confidently assert that journalists "just make it all up". Any tabloid reporter who has had to withstand the interrogation of a news editor or who has worked day and night on an investigation knows that this simply is not true. The story and the reporter is subject to the same scrutiny as his or her subject. During my own time working on The Mail on Sunday, in direct and fierce competition with the News of the World, I both witnessed and experienced the editor's forensic scrutiny. Stories of corporate corruption, abuse of power, criminal acts and infidelity would be studied, literally, word by word; no quote would pass unqueried, no assertion made without editor and lawyers being satisfied that the evidence was there to support it. This wasn't about getting away with anything. This was about getting it right.

And again and again the British tabloids have got it right: the Mail's exposure of corruption and racism in the case of murdered teenager Stephen Lawrence; the News of the World's exposure of Jeffery Archer's perjury in a libel trial brought by the millionaire Tory peer in 1986; their recent revelations of match-fixing in world snooker and in the Pakistan cricket team.

Detractors will perhaps find a pleasing symmetry in the fact that a paper many dismissed as a "scandal rag" should risk being remembered for this, its own scandal. But there is no cause to crow here. Politicians have been quick to call for a public inquiry, though no such inquiry can take place while criminal investigations are pending.

Rupert Murdoch no doubt hopes that his decisive action will draw a line beneath the debacle and reinvigorate his bid to buy the 61 per cent of the UK broadcaster BSkyB that he doesn't yet own. Meanwhile his corporation looks set to roll The Sun out as a seven-day operation.

It is worth pointing out that the News of the World scandal could only and did only emerge thanks to Britain's robust free press - a notion hard to square with any sole player holding such power. Strong tabloid journalism is a crucial force within that culture. It is as imperfect, vulgar and pugnacious as the hacks who practise it and it is as ethical and proud as them too. The scandal that has engulfed NI must not be allowed to besmirch British tabloids as a whole. Because tabloid journalism at its best it is simply journalism at its best; economic with language not truth.

Laura Collins is a senior features writer at The National. She has written for many of the UK's leading newspapers, including The Scotsman, Daily Record, Daily Mail and The Mail on Sunday