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Britain’s Tabloid Cancer

How have the British paid a steep price for their appetite for gossip and the unnecessary details of grizzly crimes?

August 10, 2011

How have the British paid a steep price for their appetite for gossip and the unnecessary details of grizzly crimes?

In the UK, the popular tabloid newspapers in Rupert Murdoch’s media empire hacked into the voice mail of a murdered 13-year-old girl. They did the same in the case of British soldiers killed fighting in the line of duty in Afghanistan. They even exposed shamelessly to public scrutiny the serious illness of the young son of then-Chancellor of the Exchequer and future Prime Minister Gordon Brown. Forced to acknowledge these shameless examples of egregious professional misconduct, the Murdochs shut down one of the linchpins of their media empire, the notorious News of the World. The News of the World, a weekly Sunday tabloid, was no business failure: It had a readership of 7.5 million when it was finally shut down. That would be the equivalent of a readership of 37.5 million per week in the United States, which has more than five times the population of Britain. Shameless tabloids continue to be hugely popular and lucrative business models in Britain — and that is unlikely to change. The passion for endless gossip and the lurid details of the most disgusting and shocking crimes, regardless of the pain inflicted on families and other loved ones by their exposure, did not start with the Murdochs — and it will not end with them. The Australian billionaire media tycoon Rupert Murdoch was simply far more focused, disciplined and skillful in feeding those tastes than any other media tycoon of his day. And, surprise surprise, he arguably did less harm than his predecessors. For the harsh truth, never acknowledged anywhere in the British media culture, is that the hypocritical and salacious British hunger for tabloid trash — far worse than anything seen in the United States, Canada or any other major industrialized nation — has done the British people incalculable harm on at least three occasions in the past century. In fact, in each of the previous cases, the consequences of the abuse of power by the most powerful and popular press lords dwarfed anything Murdoch has been recorded or even accused of doing. The first occasion was in the 1914-18 period through World War I. The popular British press then was dominated by two newspapers which, although not tabloids in technical form in those days, certainly conformed to the very base tabloid ethos. They were the Daily Express, owned by Max Aitken, who became Lord Beaverbrook, and the Daily Mail, owned by Alfred Harmsworth, who became Lord Northcliffe. Through World War I, these two newspapers supported the British governments of Herbert Henry Asquith and David Lloyd George by whipping up a patriotic frenzy against Germany. They published and endorsed hysterical stories of horrific war atrocities supposedly committed by German forces occupying Belgium — stories that were totally fictitious. A generation later, during World War II, sober, factual accounts of genocidal Nazi behavior in the Holocaust against the Jewish people, and towards Polish, Ukrainian and Russian communities, were widely dismissed in the West because of the alleged precedent of fabricated stories by the Northcliffe Daily Mail and its emulators during World War I. Even more damaging for the British, their popular press, led by Northcliffe, portrayed the British generals led by Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig as military geniuses, when they were in fact merciless, stupid butchers and bunglers of the lowest order. More than one million British soldiers died in a series of Western Front battles, culminating in the Battle of the Somme in 1916 and Passchendaele in 1917 — endeavors that gained only a ludicrous few hundred yards of territory. German casualties on the defensive in these battles were only a fraction of those suffered by the attacking forces. By the end of World War I, with the armistice of November 11, 1918 (at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month), one-third of all adult Britons between the ages of 18 and 45 had either been killed or seriously injured with wounds and chronic conditions that caused their premature deaths 30 to 40 years ahead of actuarial probability. Some two million British women of that generation remained unmarried because their potential husbands had died in the war or died shortly thereafter from wounds received during the conflict. Northcliffe was never held to account for his conscious, deliberate and systematic suppression of the realities of the wartime incompetence on the Western Front. He died insane in 1920, probably suffering from advanced syphilis. Northcliffe’s contemptible behavior contrasted with the clear-cut and clean policies of Cecil King, the most powerful press lord in Britain during World War II. His Daily Mirror repeatedly infuriated Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who at times dreamed unsuccessfully of closing it. The paper repeatedly exposed the bungles of British generals in North Africa, and of British reverses in the Battle of the Atlantic against the German U-boats. Britain’s information minister, Brendan Bracken, widely believed to be Churchill’s illegitimate son (Bracken always claimed this, and Churchill’s wife Clementine and son Randolph both believed the claim — and therefore disliked Bracken immensely), to his lasting credit defended King, the Mirror and the principle of freedom of the press. Far from undermining the British war effort, the so-called Mighty Mirror proved to be a classic positive example of the value of a responsible, free, popular press in exposing waste, corruption and abuses of power. It proved crucial in maintaining civil liberties and the highest standards of governance in the most difficult of times. In contrast, the second great damage that reckless, irresponsible popular press lords inflicted on the British people came in the 1930s when Lord Rothermere, the publisher of the Daily Mail (and the brother and successor of Northcliffe), and (once again) Lord Beaverbrook and his Daily Express, admired Adolf Hitler as a champion (in their minds) against communism. Those 1930s press lords reassured the British public that Hitler was no threat to them. The Times systematically suppressed fearless reporting from its correspondents in Germany that would have revealed the true nature of Hitler’s dictatorship. They refused to print detailed stories about Hitler’s merciless suppression of political opponents and civil rights. The Times’ behavior as the “newspaper of record” in Britain at that time did far more damage than anything it has done under Rupert Murdoch’s ownership during the past quarter century. Finally, in the 1950s and early 1960s, the ineffable Beaverbrook — still in full control of the Daily Express and its sister newspapers in his late 70s and early 80s — maintained a fierce campaign to prevent Britain from joining the incipient European Economic Community (EEC). By the time Prime Minister Harold Macmillan finally steeled himself to apply to join the EEC in 1963, President Charles de Gaulle was firmly in power in France, having established the Fifth Republic. De Gaulle then humiliated Macmillan and the British by vetoing Britain’s application. Back in the 1950s, the weak French governments of the Fourth Republic would have welcomed Britain’s entry to the EEC as a boost to their own fast-fading prestige. But Lords Beaverbrook and Rothermere, still helming the Daily Express and the Daily Mail, were fiercely opposed to this course of action. They prejudiced British public opinion against a move that was both inevitable and necessary. Therefore, it was delayed another decade and a half before it finally took place under far less favorable circumstances. The latest revelations about abuses of power in the British media, therefore, should be no surprise. Britain’s popular press lords, with the honorable exception of Cecil King, have gone to bed with the country’s political leaders for more than a century, usually with catastrophic results. The British people have paid an appalling price through two world wars and bungled economic policies for their ceaseless appetite for prurient gossip and the unnecessary details of grizzly crimes.


The Times' behavior as the "newspaper of record" in Britain in the 1930s did far more damage than anything it has done under Rupert Murdoch's ownership.

In the 1930s, British tabloids admired Adolf Hitler as a champion (as they imagined) against communism.

The British people have paid an appalling price through two world wars and bungled economic policies for their appetite for gossip and the unnecessary details of grizzly crimes.

Britain's popular press lords have gone to bed with the country's political leaders for more than a century, usually with catastrophic results.