The New Statesman Essay - The press and the swinish multitude

Can those who look down on the popular papers really call themselves the workers' friends?

Why oh why is the popular press so hated? We have had cheap, mass-circulation newspapers in this country for just over a hundred years, since 1896 when Alfred Harmsworth, later Lord Northcliffe, created the Daily Mail as the first national newspaper with an audience beyond the educated elite, and ever since that elite has been sneering at popular papers. But there has been one fascinating change over the century: the critics have shifted political position from right to left.

When the Daily Mail was launched, it was the Tories who despised it. Only a quarter-century earlier, Forster's 1870 Elementary Education Act had launched a social revolution, which would soon make basic literacy nearly universal. Many Tories were none too keen on the idea of mass education. "Cramming learning into louts", was how Lord Salisbury, still a hero to the high Tory right, described it. In the stern words of the historian Sir Robert Ensor, the first popular papers were intended for "the millions to whom the Forster Education Act had taught reading without teaching them what to read". He meant not so much true proletarians - it took some time for the habit of reading to pass down through the classes - but a new commercial lower-middle class.

Many of them had barely had a secondary education and could not (or at any rate did not) enjoy the existing press which, as Ensor revealingly says, "ignored their naive tastes, while assuming an amount of critical intelligence they simply did not possess" (no less revealingly, he admitted, in 1936, that the serious "penny press" of the late 19th century "would today be thought incredibly dull"). These new readers were the "clerks", the object of so much derision from the educated. John Carey has plausibly argued that the modern movement in literature - whose political tendency, it shouldn't be forgotten, was largely right-wing - was in part a reaction against popular education. If the hated "clerks" could now read, highbrow writers would make sure that what they wrote was too esoteric and complicated for the clerks to understand.

Reactionaries were no more pleased when the tabloids arrived, brasher and bolder still. Today, all the papers below the alleged quality press are tabloids in the technical sense of another fold in the paper - the Daily Mail is half the size of the Guardian - but until the 1970s the Mail and Express were broadsheet in format, as all the papers were a hundred years ago, downmarket halfpenny papers as well as upmarket penny papers. True tabloids arrived later, and the greatest was the Daily Mirror, the first paper that truly spoke to and for the working class.

And now, a century after the arrival of the Mail and a half-century after the heyday of the Mirror, the bitterest enemies of the tabloids are found on the left, notably in the liberal broadsheets.

From any possible perspective there obviously is much to be said against the tabloids. More than 35 years ago, Conor Cruise O'Brien described the worst features of British mass-circulation journalism as "cockiness, ignorance, carelessness, prurience, innuendo, and lip-service to the highest moral standards". But I wonder whether this lucid description can now be applied to the pops alone. There has never been a time in newspaper history when broadsheet journalists were in less of a position to patronise their tabloid colleagues.

Unlike many broadsheet journalists, I have some little experience of the popular press, having written over the years for the Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday, both Daily and Sunday Express, and even, on one occasion, for the Daily Mirror. It would be absurd for anyone who has done that to pretend that the pops are morally and culturally irreproachable, or that working for them is always a delight. But the miseres as well as grandeurs of tabloid life are not what outsiders think. It was Paul Johnson, a former editor of the NS, and now a successful practitioner of the tabloid "why oh why", who described with real feeling the ordeal of the popular journalist, "writing to order, against a deadline, on a subject not of his choosing, for readers he does not respect and for an editor who is both demanding and gruesomely uncivilised".

And yet that's not quite the intellectual prostitution of which broadsheet journalists accuse their tabloid colleagues. If you contribute to the pops, you are asked how you can write things you don't believe in. Actually, I don't think I have ever written something I strongly disbelieved in, though often enough I have written on subjects about which I had no serious opinion whatever.Was it "The Glory of the Spice Girls", or "Who needs the Spice Girls"? I seem to remember writing one or the other. It might have been both. Private Eye's Glenda Slag column catches rather well this mildly psychopathic quality of the tabloids, with their terrifyingly short attention span. Worse still is the sheer exhausting merriment of the popular press. When the features editor of the Daily Beast rings and asks me to write, "Call me old-fashioned, but am I the last straight man in England?", with the chilling words, "And keep it light and bright, Geoff", my habitual melancholy darkens further, as I recall Karl Kraus's phrase about my trade and its berufsmassige Schalkhaftigkeit - the professional jocosity of journalism.

Rather than analyse these failings, critics insist that the tabloid papers lead their gullible readers astray by feeding them right-wing lies, poisoning the wells of European amity, promoting the virtues of Anglo-American capitalism or whatever. The most ferocious critic is Polly Toynbee of the Guardian, who calls the popular press "a virus that makes us the mad dogs of Europe . . . how can we become any better when bombarded by the most xenophobic, bigoted, cynical 'opinion formers' in the western world?" But does the barking of these dogs really have the effect she thinks? My belief is that the popular press has much less influence than it hopes, or than its detractors fear.

From the 1920s to the 1960s, Beaverbrook was unquestionably the greatest press lord in this country, in succession to Northcliffe, and the Daily Express was the greatest popular newspaper. In its heyday it sold more than four million daily and, unlike the Mirror (or the Times), its readership ran right across the social and economic spectrum. Beaverbrook famously told a Royal Commission on the press that he ran his papers purely for propaganda purposes. And much good did it do him. The great campaign of his life was for Empire Free Trade, which was a total failure. So were his interventions on Churchill's side in the 1945 election, his opposition to the American loan in 1947, and his final campaign to block British entry into the Common Market.

When he and Rothermere challenged the political establishment in 1931, Stanley Baldwin, the then Conservative leader, saw them off with eight words, "power without responsibility, the prerogative of the harlot". Rothermere then took up one other quixotic cause, Hungarian revisionism against the "Trianon" dismemberment of the country. In return, he was reputedly offered the Hungarian throne, but the Daily Mail's support didn't change a single mile of the borders of Hungary.

And so today. If the euro were a genuinely strong currency, which it isn't, it would be beyond the power of the Mail and Sun to weaken it; and if there were genuine popular support for entering the single currency, which there isn't, the papers could not sap it. It was the Sun wot won it in 1992? No it wasn't. The voters actually preferred John Major to Neil Kinnock, or any rate to John Smith's tax plans. The truth is that popular papers succeed by following the public, not leading it, a truth not disproved by Tony Blair's years of pusillanimous fawning on the Sun and the Mail.

That is part of a larger truth which quite eludes foes of the tabloids: the popular press, like capitalism itself, is amoral and, in a deep objective sense, uncommitted to any system of belief or ideology. The critics still cling to what Dwight MacDonald, the American radical writer, called one of the main tenets of the liberal myth: "that the main trouble with the press is ideological, ie that it reflects the reactionary views of its owners". More penetrating observers have seen beyond this misapprehension. Evelyn Waugh got it genially right when he reviewed (with great admiration) George Orwell's essays. Although the essay on boys' magazines with their "Greyfriars" public school stories is a masterpiece, Orwell "talks nonsense when he suggests that the antiquated, conservative tone of these stories is deliberately maintained by capitalist newspaper proprietors in the interests of the class structure of society. A study of these noblemen's more important papers reveals a reckless disregard of any such obligation."

Popular newspapers do not become popular by selling ideology, and capitalism does not make profits by upholding the existing order and traditional institutions. "All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned" - words that the Sun might almost use on its masthead.

Cutting much nearer the knuckle, MacDonald said that the real trouble with mass-circulation papers "is cultural rather than ideological. They are edited according to superficial formulae designed to sell not capitalism but papers. In a sense they are too democratic: they try so hard to titillate and entertain a mass audience that they cannot tell much of the truth. Not because they suppress it, but because it hardly ever happens to fit the Procrustean bed of their technique." This was easier for MacDonald to see because he was both a political radical and a self-proclaimed cultural elitist, and took a sceptical view of the left's cult of the masses, "who always feel the right way and always act the wrong way".

Today, Polly Toynbee bitterly denounces "the Daily Grub and the Sunday Scum". But her fulminations against the pops are more revealing than she knows. It is "easy to sound sanctimonious and smug", she confesses, because "I have been remarkably lucky. I only ever worked for the Observer, Guardian, BBC and Independent".

Hang on. She is lucky, because she has never worked for a paper with a circulation of more than half a million? It is her good fortune only ever to write for an educated middle-class readership? Behind her words, and this Kulturkampf over the mass media, lurks a riveting question: does the left actually like "the people"? Paul Barker touched on this recently ("Sorry, but this is the working class", NS, 25 September), when he wrote abut the contemptuous and envenomed disdain of some leftist commentators towards the petrol-tax protesters, populists who were denounced in our genteel liberal broadsheets as Poujadists, semi-fascists, crypto-cannibals and generally not the thing.

There is a connection between those commentators and earlier leftists. Barker quoted Eric Hobsbawm on socialist writers a century ago, "expressing hatred, ridicule and contempt for the stupidity and sluggishness of the proletarian masses". The truth is that the left too often echoes Algernon in The Importance of Being Earnest: "Really, if the lower orders don't set us a good example, what on earth is the use of them?"

With all the legitimate criticisms that can be made of the international mass media, and of the British popular press, a problem remains. You cannot logically heap unremitting hatred and contempt on mass-circulation papers without hating and despising those who read them. There is something truly strange about a progressive journalist who prides herself that nothing she has ever written has been sullied by the gaze of the swinish multitude.

Some on the left dimly apprehend this problem. Neal Ascherson once put it rather differently, and poignantly, attributing what he called the terrible lack of self-confidence of the English left to a sneaking belief that people who read the Sun might actually be "Sun readers". Others have engaged in evasion and denial to get around this difficulty. Years ago, the late and still lamented David Widgery - Trotskyist and London East End GP - gave one of Channel 4's occasional Marxist pep-talks. He mentioned the Sun, and admitted that most of his patients read it, but then said with a cheeky grin: "One of them told me, 'I don't believe anything in it, not even the price' ". Leave aside the last four words (and the man who invented the idea of Cockney wit has a lot to answer for), what sort of bloody fool buys a paper he doesn't believe? And why did Widgery think that he was paying a compliment to the lower classes?

A successful centre-left popular paper has been an enticing dream ever since the News Chronicle folded and the Daily Herald morphed weirdly into the Sun - and who would have guessed then that the Sun would rout the Mirror or that the Mirror would one day be overtaken by the Mail? As it happens, five years ago I joined the Express as a contract writer, my first and last formal connection with a popular paper. At the time, I suggested to the editor that he should move gently to the left, if only because there was a gap in the market and because trying to compete with the Mail in bare-knuckled right-wingery was pointless. As ever, my advice wasn't taken, and Rosie Boycott's later attempt to do something similar at the Express has not worked. Even so, as a recovering popular journalist, I am haunted by two questions. Is it the fault of the Sun and the Mail if the left can't produce papers as effective and successful in the same markets? And if the left loathes the popular press, and by implication the populace that reads it, is the left really a popular movement?