This is what Britain’s tabloids chose to put on their front pages Thursday, the day the rest of the media was dominated by stories from the phone-hacking inquiry of well-known people crawling on their knees and fleeing down dark alleyways to escape the tabloid press:
The Daily Express revealed that Angelina Jolie was “still a bad girl.” The Daily Mail informed its readers about the Christmas Day ratings showdown between Downton Abbey and Strictly Come Dancing. At the bottom of the barrel, the Sport, after what was surely a heated editorial debate, decided to push the euro-zone debt crisis off the front page, going with “lesbo scandal” instead.
The Sun, Britain’s best-selling daily paper, also decided that the Leveson inquiry into media ethics was not as worthy as the story it chose – Matt Smith, the actor who plays Doctor Who, had allegedly ditched his girlfriend. The headline: “Sexterminate.” (That one made me laugh, I’ll admit it. The Sun’s headlines usually do – it’s much funnier than any paper owned by Rupert Murdoch has a right to be. It has a cheeky lack of pretension that endears it to the 2.7 million people who buy it every day.)
You may have noticed something that all the red-tops, as they’re called here, have in common: They are largely ignoring the inquiry, which was prompted by the phone-hacking that went on at the defunct News of the World, but has already turned up a wealth of allegations against other tabloids. According to this week’s testimony from celebrities such as Hugh Grant and J.K. Rowling, as well as the families of crime victims, the popular papers stalked, harassed, fabricated and generally treated accuracy like something you’d wipe off the bottom of your shoe.
Yet all of this paled in comparison to the stories told by parents who’d lost their children, and whose grief had been exploited, in the words of Gerry McCann, “for commercial gain.” Mr. McCann appeared with his wife Kate to testify about the stories that appeared after their three-year-old daughter Madeleine disappeared in Portugal. They were variously accused by British tabloids of selling their daughter, drugging her or hauling away her body in a rental car. They won damages – but nothing that could ever equal the damage that had been done.
The tabloids are ignoring the inquiry because they know full well what their readers want: boobs (on women) and boobs (elected). Why change the strategy now? The tabloids’ circulation is declining, but nowhere near as quickly as that of the so-called legitimate press. The Daily Mail still sells two million copies every day, and crucially – this is why it’s not just a British story – it gets 4.5 million daily hits on its website from around the world, a rise of nearly 60 per cent from last year. So a good many of us are clicking on stories about who looks awful in a bikini and how bananas give you cancer.
As I watched the inquiry, I was waiting to hear from actual newspaper readers. That, so far, has been the giant hole, the unanswered question. Would anyone be brave enough to get up there and say, “I admit it. I wanted to know if Hugh Grant’s baby was born with floppy hair,” or “Guilty, my lord. I could not walk past the news agents when I saw the headline ‘F1 Boss has Sick Nazi Orgy with Five Hookers.’ ”
To put it another way, would any of us who buy The Sun, or click on the Mail’s website every day, have the gumption to say, “I admit it, my lord. I’m a media hypocrite. I love the gossip but I deplore the way it’s gathered, and as soon as I leave here I’m going on Facebook to talk about how Sienna Miller forgot to brush her hair this morning.”
I wonder how many of us were watching the Leveson inquiry not because we want to see the great rock of justice crush the scorpion of lies but because we want to know what J.K. Rowling’s husband does for a living? One of the main trends on Twitter during Hugh Grant’s appearance was the apparently flirtatious way that one of the female lawyers was looking at him. So much for the triumph of reason over superficiality.
Jonathan Caplan, lawyer for the Daily Mail’s parent company, defended the popular press’s need to be “gossipy and sensational.” Readers will stop buying a paper, he said, if we feel we “cannot trust its integrity or its accuracy.” In other words, if we decide to stop being hypocrites. Until then, we’ve all got ink on our hands.