Monday, June 27 2016

Jonathan Freedland: The tabloid newspapers can be a force for good

  There is an interesting comment piece by Jonathan Freedland in today’s Guardian, ‘In defence of Britain’s tabloid newspapers’. In the article, Freedland explores the potential value that tabloids have to contribute to a free press.

From the Guardian:

“He made an unlikely anti-racist campaigner, but there were few voices more critical in the demand for justice for Stephen Lawrence than Paul Dacre and the Daily Mail. It was the Mail's 1997 front page headline, branding Lawrence's alleged killers "Murderers", that helped make the case impossible to ignore. It was, without question, the Mail's finest hour.

“The reminder is timely, after a year in which the reputation of tabloid newspapers has been battered. The phone-hacking scandal, and the subsequent Leveson inquiry which resumes next Monday, has painted a picture of a press that has slipped out of the gutter and into the sewer.

“And yet in this desire to punish the worst excesses of tabloid journalism, we could lose something valuable. In our determination to throw out badly fouled bathwater, we could dump a much-needed baby.

“There is more to Britain's tabloids than sleaze and celebrity. Witness the copy of the Daily Mirror I pulled at random from a tottering pile of papers in the Guardian newsroom. It was the edition of 30 November 2011. George Osborne was on the front, with a story on the autumn statement. Most of page two was devoted to a set of 100 Picasso etchings donated to the British Museum, seven of them reproduced. Then three more pages on Osborne, followed by a full-page preview of that day's public sector strike. On the next page, a report on the looting of the British embassy in Tehran, with a short story on, as it happens, the Stephen Lawrence trial. The first celeb items came with the 3am gossip column spread, on pages 12 and 13. Later there was room for a two-page feature on the death of Stalin's daughter.

“Maybe that was not a typical day. And, admittedly, the Mirror prides itself on offering a more substantial read than its rivals.

“The Mirror remains engaged in topics that might surprise the tabloids' detractors. It ran a series of reports last year from South Sudan; it is the lead backer of the anti-BNP Hope not Hate campaign; and it covers the war in Afghanistan properly.

“And it's not just the Mirror. It won't appeal to many Guardian readers, but Trevor Kavanagh writes serious, informed political commentary in the Sun, while it was the dreaded News of the World which revealed the Pakistani spot-fixing scandal, an important and wholly legitimate story.

“Sure, all of this comes wrapped with a healthy salting of gossip and titillation…But one senior executive told me he also believes it is his job to educate his readers, to explain the world in plain, accessible language. Even if that goal is rarely achieved, it is a noble one, one that any true democrat or egalitarian should support. For a true democracy cannot leave knowledge in the hands of the elite few; it has to be spread widely. So, yes, it has made the most gruesome mistakes and, yes, those will require severe remedy – but Britain needs its popular press, now more than ever.”

Freedland makes a crucial point here that the ‘popular press’, as he describes it, is essential to a thriving democracy and he points out several examples of tabloids’ contributions to good journalism.

However, he is also correct that the phone-hacking scandal and subsequent Leveson Inquiry into press culture, practices and ethics, “has painted a picture of a press that has slipped out of the gutter and into the sewer.”  The way that the tabloid press reports Muslims and Islam in a way that is often inaccurate, inflammatory and highly negative is no doubt a part of this. ENGAGE has highlighted this most recently in our own submission to the Leveson Inquiry. Moreover, the former Daily Star reporter, Richard Peppiatt’s evidence to the Leveson Inquiry, and former letter of resignation from the paper in which he heavily criticised it for its unforgiving Islamophobic coverage of Muslims, also exemplifies the state of the tabloid papers.

Britain’s tabloid newspapers have shown in the past that they have the potential to contribute real worth to journalism and to our democracy. However, a free press is not a free-pass to smear and scaremonger about the Muslim community, or any other community at that. To hold onto any credibility, tabloid newspapers must reform and commit themselves to journalism which is responsible, accurate and fair.

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