BBC BLOGS - Newsnight: Paul Mason
« Previous | Main | Next »

It's the tabloids wot won't win it anymore

Paul Mason | 13:28 UK time, Monday, 7 July 2008

BONG: Trinity Mirror's shares down 81% in a year; BONG: Johnston Press shares down 90%; BONG: Daily Mail and General Trust Shares down 54% - it's all there on the front page of the Guardian Media section. What does it mean?
What it does NOT mean is that newspapers are dying as media businesses: the ad spend figures projected by Group M last month are for a fall in growth - from 6% to 4% - masking a rapid rise in Internet advertising (27% projected next year). What it does mean is newspapers will have to become multiplatform businesses reliant on a multiplatform ad spend and probably lower revenues.
I think it means that tabloid newspapers are going to become less important politically, and that their positive political functions - as a kind of analogue network for the collective emotional feelings of the wider electorate - are already moving into other media. As a result, politicians who understand this will probably spend less cosying up to newspaper proprietors .

Consider this: the most-read stories on the BBC website are nearly always "tabloid": Tindall admits drink drive charge; Alan Sugar "survives plane crash" are currently #2 and #3 with "Musical toilet from Japan" heading both the most watched and most read lists as I write. All that output, all those correspondents in flak jackets, all that research and analysis, and Joe Blow on the internet is only interested in a Bach-playing-khazi!
You may shake your head but that is why tabloids exist: whatever it is, deep within the collective psyche, that Roger Harrabins's report on the remote-controlled toilet has touched, will be instinctively understood in the newsroom of the Sun and Mirror (and for that matter, Nuts). However, go online to the Daily Mail's website and it becomes clear that the BBC is not the only media whose old-skool priorities get morphed online into something more plebeiean.
The Mail's newsprint agenda is well represented by the stories chosen by its online subs: Brown says we throw too much food away; Rail lashed Britain in summer washout; 7/7 bomber's family hold party on his grave; brother of 7/7 bomber gets free holiday to Pakistan. Flip to its "most read" story list and the top is, of course, tennis star Laura Robson, followed by a funny about a bride whose wedding dress fell off her at the altar, followed by a picture story about murder victim Shaki Townsend allegedly "posing with a gun".
You don't need a PhD in media studies to know that two completely different demographics are involved in both these examples (BBC and Mail). But since media outlets cannot, as Brecht once quipped about the East German government, "elect a different population", they have to live with this and adapt. What it means is that, in ad-funded media at least, the politics of the future audience are going to be very different online than in print.
But that's not all. Some of the broader functions of the tabloid are already being usurped by three forms of media: the internet, people's text message networks, and talk radio. If you look at the front page of the Sun - "What a weekend to be British - Lewis and Laura triumph" then that essential mood-catching, euphoria riding headline, whose subtext says "here's two kids with great teeth that make us proud to be alive etc" - already feels old. Why? Because millions of SMS texts have been flying around in the last 24 hours to the same effect, with hundreds of blog posts and many hours of talk radio burbling.
The implications of this go beyond the world of the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club. In fact they go right to the heart of the relationship between tabloid newspaper bosses and politicians. If you no longer have a monopoly on the nation's collective heart and soul, why do you have the power to dictate policy and summon prime ministers?
This is not just about the internet: the rise of talk radio - above all Talksport (a favourite secret listen among BBC news execs) - has also captured a political space that was once the monopoly of tabloid editors. However, though much of the language in such radio programmes is demotic and brutal, it is not a simple radio version of the tabloid: for one thing, they have to be broadly impartial - hence the employment of George Galloway to counter and occasionally make jibes against John Gaunt on Talksport. Crucially, at election time, they have to go into purdah - as shock jock James Whale found out when he was sacked for breaching that rule. In addition, radio advertising being thin, returns meagre and the sector more heavily regulated for competition, the barriers to entry for commercial radio are lower. You do not just get multimillionaires owning it. In short, owning a talk radio channel is not going to give you the power to do a "Neil Kinnock plus lightbulb" screamer on election day, nor "It's the Sun wot won it" the day after.
I think there is one startling proof of the concept that tabloids don't matter as much politically as they did, and that one day soon they will hardly matter at all - and that is the rise of David Cameron. There is not a single tabloid that has gone out of its way to back him. In fact the majority of tabloid commentators offer us a daily helping of views that would get you drummed off the Conservative A-list and possibly out of Cameron's party. Above all, the Murdoch tabloids have yet to switch decisively to Cameron, yet he is double digits ahead of Labour in every poll.
He has of course been very canny, employing an ex-tabloid editor as his press man. Yet Andy Coulson seems to have recognised that what the tabloids used to do is now done by this complex distributed network of media: from Youtube to radio talk show and celebrity TV show. What all these things have in common - the blog, the phone-in, the one-to-many text message - are that they take control of the message out of the hands of sub-editors and out of the hands of the owners they are subordinate to.
Crass and crude some of the "new-media" content mix may be, but at least it's the audience's own crass crudity, not completely foisted on them by what we used to know as Fleet Street. They have to feel the message to be genuine, in subtext as well as text, for it to avoid instant ridicule.
Above all, this new interactive media does not respect tradition: it is going to drag newspaper editors of all persuasions into political territory they never dreamed of. Last week I heard Guardian Editor Alan Rusbridger opine on this in public. He said two things which went un(der) reported, both of which were significant:
1) The Guardian's new colour presses may be the last they ever buy (they last about 20 years);
2) He would not rule out the newspaper advocating a vote for the Conservatives (he pointed out they had done so in 1951 on the grounds that Labour had "run out of steam").
There would, it was pointed out in the audience, be rebellion all along London's Farringdon Road where the Guardian is printed. However, the serious - and at the time unbroached - fact behind Rusbridger's point is that, for all that the Guardian's columnists attack Gordon Brown for being too right wing, incompetent, "letting in the Tories etc" the Guardian's readership - if it has anything in common with those who answer opinion polls - are probably not averse to voting Conservative so long as Cameron sticks to the social-liberalism he has espoused.
The internet-reading, talk-show phoning, multiple-texting masses are, in summary, politically volatile and unfaithful. They are the first generation who are getting their news from each other and who can establish a collective "buzz" about what's right and wrong with the world, independent of any newspaper or network TV channel. The canniest execs in newsprint - tabloid, broadsheet and Berliner - already know this; they are triangulating their politics coverage against both the wishes of the proprietor and the mood of the audience - which they always did, but with more control over the latter.
As for the politicians they are getting it much more slowly: only big newspapers and vast TV networks can deliver one big message fast - whether it's about wasting food or "Britishness". When they see this kind of PR message delivered, it tends to blind them to the existence of the user-controlled networks where it is systematically ridiculed and ripped to shreds. The impact of this you can only measure at election time.


  • Comment number 1.


    Between your erudite lines, Paul, I find an immature electorate all entitled to vote, manipulated by media, tangled up with politics, peopled by juvenile wannabe MPs, headed by a dysfunctional PM, living on a planet in flux, peopled by a further 6 billion of the 'Ape Confused by Language'.

  • Comment number 2.

    Forgive me if this sounds tough, but I'm having trouble with Paul Mason as "Economics Editor" of Newsnight. PM has done some excellent reporting in recent years, but his stint as "Business Editor" or whatever he was called showed him up a bit, and trying to step into Stephanie Flanders's mighty shoes is clearly beyond him. I don't know whose idea this was - perhaps he was press-ganged - but I think it reflects poorly on the program.

  • Comment number 3.


    I remember many years ago some letters in The Times about letters in The Times and how to get them published. The consensus seemed to be that there were no rules about getting published but it helped if your were a member of the Atheneum. As to how you became a member of the Atheneum, there appeared to be no rules but it helped if you had had a letter published in The Times.

    That bit of trivia essentially sums up the relationship between the printed media and it's audience. With very little input from it's audience, the press delivered the message it wanted its audience to receive. If falling sales led to falling advertising revenue, they reverted to Plan B - printing what they thought the public wanted - Eurosceptic diatribes and Diana conspiracies in the Express, hang 'em and flog 'em in the Mail, tits and bums in the Sun. The standards of journalism in the nineties took a nose dive from which they have never really recovered.

    Personally, I have always harboured doubts about the real influence of the press. Given that people tend to gravitate towards media which reflect their own opinions, there is more than a hint that what the press are actually doing is preaching to the converted. This is, of course, the thinking which defines advertising strategy. Wine tasting holidays in the Chilean Andes are hardly going to sell in the News of the World but then again, if you can afford to go half way round the world for a glass of Cab Sauv, you are not really worried about a boggof on sausages at Tescos are you? Add to that the significant numbers who buy the papers specifically for the advertising (if you want a bedsit in London, you buy the Standard on Thursday), the racing tips or the crossword (I did the Telegraph crossword for years but hardly ever read it), you begin to get an idea of the real impact - or lack of it - that the press has on public opinion. And as for 'it was the Sun wot won it', it was John Major wot lost it - in more senses than one.

    The instant access media have three things going for them. The immediacy is the obvious one (although a quick flip to Nick Robinson's blog today will show how quick people are to shoot from the hip and write unspeakable garbage). The second is that it is free. (OK, you pay for broadband but you needed that anyway). Perhaps the most important though is accessibility. Many years on, I still reckon my best bet of getting a letter in The Times is to join the Atheneum whereas, if I stick to the rules about sexism and racism and avoid the 'f' word, there is a reasonable chance that the whole world will have access to my pearls of wisdom (unspeakable garbage?) minutes after I have written them.

    Quite what the advertising industry will make of this remains to be seen although investment figures seem to suggest that they are going for it for all it's worth. I am more engaged with the notion of the internet as the 'new democracy'. Could blogging lose Glasgow East for Labour or bring down the government? I doubt it. But it opens up the possibility of widespread tactical voting and could change the political landscape.

    PS, Nullius #123. I don't happen to agree with you but Paul can speak for himself. But if you have a complaint, go to customer services and let us get on with our business.

  • Comment number 4.

    Re Nullius (2) I'm with Threnodio (3) and whose Atheneum 'trivia' incidentally I also much enjoyed and thought very much to the point.

    Paul Mason's blog indeed thought-provoking. I'm not sure myself the rather gentlepersonsly format of the BBC Newsnight blogs (I prefer the cut and thrust of forums myself) can have much impact but I was struck by his remarks about David Cameron's relation with the media.

    A tiny thing: the blog is difficult to read with no paragraph spacing nor space indentation at the start of a paragraph. I know space indentation is difficult with HTML. The webpage gives some tips.

  • Comment number 5.

    Another insightful and thought provoking article.

    Since Paul took on his new role I always try and read his Blogs. In fact I only read Robert Peston and Paul.

    Nullis123, I just can't see where you are coming from...

  • Comment number 6.

    Im amazed that anything so class ridden as the Guardian was ever considered left.

  • Comment number 7.

    RE sources of money - sovereign wealth funds.

    Okay - Korea has pulled out of Lehman because of insecurity.

    But OPEC is keeping up price of oil.

    Wake up to big picture please.

    Not ALL sovereign welath funds can be dismissed.

    Wanna bet?


More from this blog...

Latest contributors

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.