Shaking the Foundations of Tabloid Journalism

Ryan Gallagher
9 July 2010

Now that England are no longer in the World Cup, it’s back to business as usual for the popular press.  Never mind Wayne Rooney or Fabio Capello, South Africa was yesterday and there are issues waiting to be indignantly addressed: immigration, Muslims, asylum seekers, benefit fraud, homosexuality – a meaty combination of all the things that matter, served with a side of celebrity and garnished with nudity, and all for less than the price of a packet of crisps.

Indeed, the tabloids have returned to form this week and there has been plenty for them to shout about.  On Tuesday the front page of the Daily Express was devoted to a story reporting that windows of a swimming pool in Walsall had been tinted in order to protect the modesty of Muslim women.  “MUSLIMS FORCE POOL COVER-UPannounced the headline.  “They’ve obviously listened only to what the Muslim community wants and ignored the rest of us” a local man told the Express. 

The story was also picked up by the Daily Mail, and the readers’ comments section accompanying the online version confirmed that its message had been received loud and clear.  “I am fed up of all these concessions being given to muslims all the time”, wrote one anonymous user.  “Sorry, this is a Christian country, not Muslim” added another, posting under the name Lusherly. 

But interestingly, most commenters failed to notice a sentence discreetly pinned on to the story’s conclusion: “There were also requests made by some non-Muslim users as well.”  An insignificant detail we can only assume.

Wednesday’s Express offered its 668,000 readership a chance to reflect and gather their thoughts after the swimming pool outrage – nothing to get too worried about, just a hosepipe ban (“HOSEPIPE BAN FOR MILLIONS”), a report about overpriced groceries (“OVERPRICED OCADO BLASTED BY ‘SCEPTICS’”), and the new direction of Kylie Minogue (“KYLIE MINOGUE TO MOVE INTO DIRECTING”).

And just as the flute of steam began to ebb from their ears, Thursday’s Express arrived on newsstands nationwide like a bat out of hell: “NOW ASYLUM IF YOU’RE GAYroared its headline.  A response to the decision made by the Supreme Court to grant Gay and lesbian asylum seekers the right to stay in the UK if they would be persecuted in their home countries, the tone of the accompanying article was one of panic.  “Asylum claims could soar” they warned, “millions might try to claim they are gay to qualify for asylum in Britain.”

A chilling prospect for any self respecting Express reader – not only are they asylum seekers, but they are Gay too.  And some of them might even be Muslim; God forbid.  Again the Mail also ran the story, and again the commenters furiously pounded their keyboards with a vicious force.  “CLOSE THE BORDER NOW”, demanded ‘Jane’, writing in capitals to place emphasis on the seriousness of her demand.

But worse of all was the coverage in the Express’s sister paper, the Daily Star.  “NO ROOM FOR GAYS” said the headline, the piece’s anonymous author keen to inform us that the Supreme Court’s decision was nothing but bad news.  Why? “The resulting flood of numbers could push our creaking infrastructure over the edge” apparently.  But not only that, “We simply cannot afford to keep taking the world’s outcasts... We must look after our own first.”

It’s not difficult to see why the Star costs only 10p – you get what you pay for.  At one fourth of the price of four Tesco Value toilet rolls, only a fool would expect it to contain anything other than journalism of a standard that makes the Mail and the Express look respectable – and that’s no mean feat.  But though the Star’s piece might read like an excerpt from a BNP manifesto, the content of the Express and the Mail have this week been no less troubling.  The Press Complaints Commission have apparently received “a number of complaints” about both the Express and the Star’s coverage of the Gay asylum seekers decision, and the clock is still ticking.  Join the march of discontent here in reference to sections 1 (i) and 12 of the Editors’ Code of Practice

Indeed, the infrastructure continues to creak as another droning chorus of misguided indignation rises and falls.  But as the creak grows louder its origins become clear: it’s the foundations of tabloid journalism that are buckling, not the welfare state.  Let the “outcasts” come in their droves, for there are empty houses that need filled. The Notting Hill Carnival can be the welcome party, a celebration of “outcast unity” in the spirit of its inception.  And who knows what could be possible; if we make enough noise we might even manage to buckle those tabloid foundations once and for all.

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