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article imageOp-Ed: Grim reading — Ex News of the World editor explains tabloid-think

By Paul Wallis     Nov 29, 2011 in Crime
Sydney - ex NOTW editor Paul McMullan's testimony to the UK media inquiry is a study in the mindsets of tabloid news. McMullan said, "in 21 years of invading people's privacy I've never found anybody doing any good".
Tabloids are for people that drag their eyebrows along the ground. Tabloid culture has all the elegance of a condemned urinal, and many of the same smells. The Sydney Morning Herald has a lot of quotes from McMullan, and if you thought tabloids are insensitive and lost in their own mythology before, you’ll be stunned by what McMullan had to say:
For example:
The public interest added up to no more than the sheer number of copies the News of the World could sell, he said.
"Circulation defines the public interest," he said, which meant that everything was legitimate as long as the public bought the paper.
Which, presumably, is why the tabloids still think the public gives a damn about celebrities. Tabloid circulation isn’t doing much better than the other newspapers, (only the boobs and butts fest UK Sun is paying for itself these days) and for a dying medium to start justifying its own sleaze really is Broadway musical stuff.
McMullan did have a point to make, whatever you may think of that point. He apparently actually thinks that invasion of privacy is OK, if it’s for news value. The word “balance” doesn’t occur in his testimony that I could see, nor do any of the other principles of journalism, but check this out-
McMullan paid one "rent boy" £2000, then dressed up as another to expose a priest. Having snapped the picture of the reverend in flagrante, the two ran off in their underpants "through a nunnery at midnight".
Look at this objectively for a second. It could be called a form of entrapment, but it can also be called news, because so many thousands of people are complaining about generations of abuse by priests. Whether it’d stand up in court is another matter, but it provides news, in its own Stone Age way.
The sheer primitivism of tabloid media is basically its reason for existence. It does have a market, although who the hell would want that market outside a freak show is open to debate. When you do any sort marketing, you don’t necessarily want your product associated with the Sleaze Uber Alles effect. This is called “positioning”, and it’s a core principle.
On the unfunny side-
"The hacking of Milly Dowler's phone was not a bad thing for a well-meaning journalist, who is only trying to find the girl, to do," he claimed. "Our intentions were good, our intentions were honourable."
Naturally, the same methodology used so often to hack celebrity phones is appropriate for helping/finding dead teenagers, if you happen to think that way. (Good intentions to do what, for God's sake? If the kid had answered her phone, she'd probably have got a few hectares of paparazzi to play with, too. Child psychology according to tabloids, I suppose. ) Why respect anything, if you have a built in excuse for not respecting it? Don’t hack sleazeball businesspeople, don’t hack lunatic politicians, hack the phones the readers want you to hack. Seems pretty straightforward, doesn’t it?
There’s not even the beginnings of any sort of apologia in McMullan’s testimony. He obviously doesn’t think he’s got anything to apologize for. This is very probably a good look at the mentality that’s turned the news media into a truly lousy joke.
The Sydney Morning Herald couldn't resist referring to McMullan's views with some dry humour:
But if there was grandstanding, it was still worth hearing every word: here espoused was the end point of the regulation-free, market-driven, anything-goes tabloid morality.
The SMH is an old, established broadsheet newspaper with roughly the same profile as The New York Times in its market. It’s interesting to see Old Media’s view of tabloids, especially since one of its main competitors is a quasi-tabloid, the Telegraph, a Murdoch paper but not in the UK Sun mode.
There’s another perspective. In new media, there’s another sort of “regulation” in the form of technology and culture. The NOTW approach is old in so many ways online. If you do tabloid materials, you get the net lowlifes. That’s a risky proposition, and you also scare off the major demographics of readers and users. People don’t feel safe on sites like that, usually with very good reason.
Online news sites are also instantly accessible. You can hide from the fury in a newspaper environment, but not online. Get someone really annoyed, and you don’t get bleats of outrage. You get actual attacks and more flak in seconds than anything the old papers have ever seen. The tabloids are on the way out now, partly because they’re obsolete media and the net can do things better and cheaper and partly because these wanker-factories aren’t very good anyway. McMullan’s testimony is as much obituary as information.
Good riddance, too, but the story of media is that when one form of sleaze goes, another, worse variety takes its place. So if a medium which doesn't acknowledge even the theory of the right of privacy goes, what comes next?
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
More about tabloid culture, Sydney morning herald, UK media inquiry into News of the World, Paul McMullan, Murdoch press
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