For any aficionado of the more bizarre digressions of politics and the media, it seems churlish to complain about the board of fare offered by the Leveson Inquiry. Lord Leveson’s investigation into the British press, prompted by recent revelations of endemic phone-hacking by at least one British tabloid, has been by turns grotesque and hilarious. However, while the testimony of assorted film stars, political operatives, relatives of murder victims and journalists has indeed been absorbing, it feels like one significant figure in the case – indeed, arguably the most significant figure – has not been subjected to proper examination: the tabloid reader.
Newspapers only succeed by servicing the aspirations, fears and interests of their audience. If a large proportion of the British press is filled with inane gossip, prurient outrage, baseless scaremongering and vacuous PR-driven fluff – and a large proportion of the British press most certainly is filled with all those things – then it’s a reasonable deduction that a plurality of the people who buy British newspapers are dim, credulous, trivial and mean. If the recent scandals have reinforced any one lesson, it’s that media barons are not charitable sorts. If any owner of any tabloid believed they’d accrue more readers – and with them, more money and power – by producing a rigorous, righteous and uplifting publication, loftily disdainful of minority-baiting, bin-rummaging and paparazzi upskirts, that is most assuredly what they would do.
According to recent figures from the Audit Bureau of Circulation, combined sales of Britain’s tabloid or tabloid-esque newspapers – The Sun, The Star, The Mirror, The Mail and The Express – amount to 7,398,271 (a figure which does not include the millions more who visit the associated websites, or the 2.7 million who bought the News Of The World before it died of embarrassment in July). Leveson should put a few of these people on the stand, and ask them why they care about Sienna Miller’s dinner plans, or why they paid money to learn about Steve Coogan’s sex life – and how much responsibility they’re willing to take for helping to create an environment in which the hacking of a missing child’s phone, or the pestering of bereaved parents, seems like acceptable behaviour.
This is not to excuse such transgressions, as there is no excuse, but the journalism that resulted from the tabloid excess revealed by Leveson was all read avidly. Nor is this intended as a condemnation of tabloid newspapers – at their best, they remain terrific battering rams against hypocrisy and injustice. But British tabloids only reached their present unhappy pass by following their readers there. Just once, it’d be nice to see the public held accountable.