Who can forget it? I certainly can’t. It was one of those unique moments that only happen once in a lifetime, moments in which time stands still and collective jaws hit the floor. The year was 2001, the month was September, and the day was the twelfth. Eh? Yes, that was the only day I ever knew when the newspaper shelf at my local Co-Op was empty. Something must have happened the day before to prompt those who wouldn’t normally bother to rush out and purchase a paper.
Maybe back in the 1950s and 60s, when sales of daily papers were at their peak, what I’ve only experienced once was a regular occurrence? There were certainly plenty of earth-shattering headlines during this period, from the JFK assassination to the first Moon Landing, to warrant clearing the newsstands – although many still had a morning paper delivered along with their morning milk back then, ensuring they’d always have a copy with their name scrawled on it. Talk of Golden Ages tends to tempt the donning of glasses with lenses tinted in rose, but when it comes to the British press, the immediate post-war decades were really the last time the public turned to Fleet Street as their primary source of news. And in populist terms, the most successful papers combined hard news with the appetite for scandal and sensationalism that can almost be traced back to the popular press’s very beginnings, when literacy was becoming more widespread than it had ever been before.
The Victorian penny dreadfuls that salivated over the dramatic Whitechapel Murders laid the foundations for the next century of Fleet Street produce, and the popular press has gleefully built upon those foundations ever since. At the same time, however, there is a strong tradition of investigative journalism that has run parallel with the more salacious inclinations of the press, and both strands of Fleet Street long maintained an uneasy coexistence until one won out over the other.
A true pioneer who managed to combine both the sensationalist and investigative elements of the early newspapers to a remarkably successful effect was William Thomas Stead, a journalist at leading Victorian evening paper, ‘The Pall Mall Gazette’. The story for which he is most well-known was of a kind that wouldn’t be out-of-place in a Fleet Street tabloid in the 21st Century – an exposé of child prostitution. In the best tradition of the moral crusades spearheaded by Victorian reformers, Stead railed against the sexual exploitation of children on the streets of London in a series of articles in 1885 that uncovered the seedy underbelly of the capital in a way that had never been seen in print before. He ‘bought’ a 13-year-old girl in order to demonstrate the outrageous ease with which such a transaction could be achieved, but was eventually charged with purchasing the child without her father’s permission and served a three-month prison sentence, a punishment that effectively ended his career at the Pall Mall Gazette, even though his campaign helped force through a change in the laws regarding the age of consent.
However, for all his admirable efforts in exposing a ghastly rookery of Victorian society, the manner in which Stead presented his findings bore all the familiar trademark signs of lurid tabloid sensationalism, with headlines such as The Confessions of a Brothel-Keeper and The Violation of Virgins; and the articles were all published under the melodramatic title, The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon. Stead’s reports were received by the general public with a fanatical fervour that would be recognisable to anyone who has lived through more recent examples of hysteria whipped-up by the press – especially when it stems from a case of child sexual abuse; the Gazette became the best-selling paper in the country overnight, and the lessons it taught Fleet Street, that the two opposing strands of newspaper journalism could be brought together and merge as one spectacularly successful whole, didn’t go unnoticed.
The ‘quality’ papers looked down on what they viewed as Stead’s vulgar titillation with disdain and refrained from such lascivious headlines; but the popular press quickly acquired a large and devoted readership by pandering to the public’s inherent desire to experience the wild side of life by vicarious means and a formula was established that would serve Fleet Street well for the next 100 years. For papers that aspired to quality status whilst retaining an appeal for those who sought their thrills in a little scandal, the balance was often tenuous, but before TV became the prime news service for Joe Public, both factions managed to maintain a mutually beneficent equilibrium. The Daily Mirror was the tabloid market-leader during the 50s and 60s, mixing gossipy showbiz news with strong campaigning journalism; the populist angle sold copies and the campaigns earned plaudits; the success of the former made investment in the latter possible. It also proved to be a useful breeding ground for the journalists who would gradually make their mark on television, which would take the approach to hard populist journalism of the Mirror and expand its horizons on programmes such as ITV’s ‘World in Action’.
The Daily Mirror was the newspaper of the working-class, a staunch Labour supporter whose introduction of a Northern edition printed in Manchester solidified its appeal, as did the iconic comic-strip, Andy Capp. By the mid-60s, it was selling five million editions a day and had become so successful that the IPC (publishers of the Mirror) purchased failing rival paper, The Daily Herald, re-launching it in 1964 as a mid-market broadsheet called The Sun. However, the Sun was unable to reverse the plummeting fortunes of its former incarnation, and after five years, the IPC decided to sell the paper, feeling it didn’t have much of a future. The unexpected battle to capture the Sun in 1969 took the IPC by surprise, but the two men who sidled up to each other in a bid to stake a claim in the profitable tabloid market would redesign the popular press in their own image, Robert Maxwell and Rupert Murdoch. The Digger’s eventual purchase of the Sun coincided with the advent of the Permissive Society, enabling him to utilise sex as a selling point in tandem with a heavy emphasis on sport and celebrity, something that began in earnest with the rise of Princess Diana and continued with Posh & Becks; the phenomenal success of this recipe ensured the tabloid market entered not so much its second childhood as its second adolescence.
Maxwell may have long since disappeared for a date with Neptune, but Murdoch’s geriatric presence still hovers over the remnants of Fleet Street like the distant ghostly rattle of typewriters and the faint echo of an exasperated publican shouting ‘Time, gentlemen, please’ in the middle of the afternoon. Only diehard devotees of the print medium depend upon it as the best provider of news now, mainly because they always have; when they are gone, where will the next audience come from? The morning paper sticking through the letterbox is as rare a sight these days as a pint on the doorstep. Indeed, the only time the traditional press experiences any real upsurge of sales in the 21st century is when a major news story breaks, whether the hacking scandal, the expenses row or the kind of horrific event witnessed last week in Paris. There is still a lingering instinct in the public to reach for a paper when something serious happens, yet the press continues to rigidly favour a daily diet of trivia over hard news, despite the evidence that those who wallow in it get their trivia hit online in 2015.
The solution of sacking long-serving journalists and replacing them either with internet-savvy interns or encouraging contributions from members of the public, jettisoning entire sections of a paper and clogging-up the online editions with scantily clad starlets is seen by many proprietors as the way forward; yet, such an approach has helped bring the Daily Telegraph to its knees over the past eighteen months. One would think the press would return to what it does best to combat the challenge of the internet; it can’t compete with it in the trivia stakes, so why not stick to actual news stories written by those who have studied their specialist subjects for many years and are an authority on them? Failing that, why not recruit the excellent online writers that are out there? Or maybe the physical paper as a news source is already too far on its way to joining the Town Crier to save.