Tabloid newspapers trivialise and sexualise almost everything. After a murderous rampage on Westminster Bridge, they publish a picture of the perpetrator’s teenage daughter “headed to a school prom night in a revealing backless dress” (the Sun), noting approvingly that “she has refused to give up her middle-class Western lifestyle” while her older sister “embraced the burqa” (Daily Mail).
Then, as Theresa May meets Nicola Sturgeon to discuss whether a 310-year-old union between their countries has a future, the Mail publishes a front-page picture of the two women sitting in above-the-knee skirts and shiny nude tights, headlined: “Never mind Brexit, who won Legs-it!” Nero fiddled while Rome burned; the Mail admires women’s legs while the UK crumbles.
Inside, below more full-length pictures of the two women and more excruciating puns (“skirting around the issue”), the Mail columnist Sarah Vine explains that “May’s . . . long extremities are demurely arranged . . . knees tightly together, calves at a flattering diagonal”. Sturgeon’s legs are “altogether more flirty, tantalisingly crossed”. It is, Vine warns, “a direct attempt at seduction”. Scots have a choice: “the reliable, measured . . . Mrs May” and the “safety” of the Union, or “a wild, dangerous leap into the unknown” and “a lifetime of regrets”.
You can call all this shameful, demeaning and sexist, and you would be right. But it is also brilliant: an example of political comment (or propaganda, if you prefer) wrapped in a package that many people will enjoy, laugh at and talk about. It is what tabloid newspapers do. They humanise news that most people might otherwise find dull and abstract. If you don’t like it, don’t read them.
Redtop or dead
Television and radio producers, however, do read them, particularly the Mail. So do politicians. Indeed, I sometimes wonder if they read anything else. The BBC featured the Mail’s “Legs-it” prominently on its online news front page and Radio 4’s World at One. The former Tory cabinet minister and Remain supporter Nicky Morgan took to Twitter and the airwaves to express her outrage, as did Jeremy Corbyn (“This sexism must be consigned to history”) and Harriet Harman (“Moronic!”).
The numbers who buy newspapers dwindle by the month. But nearly all online and broadcast news derives from the traditional press, which therefore sets the agenda. That is why politicians court Rupert Murdoch, the most powerful proprietor, and would court Paul Dacre, the Daily Mail editor, and Lord Rothermere, the Mail’s proprietor, if either were at all biddable. No party leader of the past forty years has flourished without keeping the press onside. Ed Miliband, who bravely made clear his hostility to the Murdoch papers as well as the Mail, badly lost an election he ought to have won. Corbyn, whose clumsy public performances make him too easy to mock and whose team lacks anybody with understanding of tabloid newspapers, stands no chance.
A bigger splash
Britain’s tabloids are the world’s most successful mass-circulation papers; MailOnline has more readers than any other English-language website on the planet.
Their problem is revenue, with print sales down and advertising fleeing to Google and Facebook. So, papers are desperate to make an impact. The old-style scoop won’t quite do it because its gist will be across the web in seconds, with few acknowledging the source. To command attention, newspapers must give a distinctive twist to stories, with displays that become ever bigger, brighter and more outrageous, like peacocks’ tail feathers. This explains why papers are so shrill in their politics and so unpleasant to their opponents.
To get the full flavour of the Mail’s Brexit-supporting bigotry, and its spiteful personal attacks on Remainers, you have to see the real thing. Otherwise, it’s like relying on someone else’s account of a vital football match. You miss all the excitement.
As I watched the BBC Question Time special on Brexit the other night, it struck me that we could still be in the middle of the referendum campaign. The arguments were identical to those we heard last summer. The Leavers still promise a glittering future selling our goods to Australia and New Zealand. The Remainers still warn of economic ruin, ten-mile queues at Dover and mass deportations of expat pensioners in Spain.
Here is my prediction. These exchanges will continue for the next two years. Negotiations in Brussels will perpetually teeter on the brink of collapse. The final session will last all night. Exhausted negotiators will emerge with a deal of sorts but nobody will agree on what it means. Leavers and Remainers alike will scream “betrayal”, both alleging that we are condemned to indefinite economic stagnation.
And then, out of the EU, we shall find nothing much has changed. We shall still do most of our trade with Europe; we shall keep most EU “red tape”; Polish plumbers and Romanian hop-pickers will still find their way here. It reminds me of the millennium bug. We were warned for years before 2000 that computers, unable to cope with altering four digits at once, would cause planes to fall from the skies. On 1 January 2000, nothing happened. Nor will it on the anticipated “independence day”, 29 March 2019.
No use crying . . .
Clink, clink! The once familiar sound of milk bottles being delivered to our doorstep before dawn. A new local firm claims to deliver more or less directly from the cow’s udder and pay farmers a fair price.
We wallow in the nostalgia of a classic bottle with its silver top which, during our 1950s childhoods, birds would peck. Then, after using the bottle once or twice, there emerges from the fridge a long-forgotten smell. The top has slipped off; milk has spilt.
I can’t help feeling that, somewhere in this episode, there’s a metaphor for Brexit.
This article appears in the 29 Mar 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition