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24 May 2021

Britain’s shameless tabloids have no right to lecture the BBC on media ethics

Nobody did more than the tabloids to kill Princess Diana but they have never shown any contrition.

By Martin Fletcher

The Tory tabloids have been having a field day. Through the Martin Bashir scandal the BBC has handed them a huge rod with which to beat it, and how gleefully they have seized that opportunity. They’ve devoted page after page to Auntie’s shame, utterly oblivious to their own “stinking hypocrisy”.

Nobody did more than the tabloids to kill Princess Diana. It was quite literally the paparazzi – the photographers that supplied their front-page pictures – who chased her Mercedes at high speed into the Paris tunnel where she died in 1997. It was the tabloids who relentlessly stalked that vulnerable young woman and fuelled her paranoia by turning royal employees into paid informants. Does anyone seriously doubt that they would not have forged bank statements, or worse, to secure an interview with her had the ruse occurred to them? 

In his eulogy at his sister’s funeral Charles Spencer called Diana “the most hunted person of the modern age” and said she “talked endlessly of getting away from England, mainly because of the treatment that she received at the hands of the newspapers”.

If the tabloids felt any contrition following her death they did not show it. They instead proceeded to hack the mobile phones of her two sons, William and Harry, not to mention those of scores of celebrities, politicians, sports stars and a 13-year-old murder victim, Milly Dowler. In the end they drove Harry and Meghan Markle into exile.

There is obviously an important role for tabloids – not everyone can be expected to read the Guardian, Times or Financial Times. There are some brilliant tabloid journalists, and the tabloids have done plenty of great investigative and campaigning journalism over the years. But they also have a long and disgraceful history of subterfuge, blackmail, bribery, fabrication, entrapment, character assassination, lynch mobbing, pernicious cheque-book journalism and ruining lives for commercial gain.

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More generally, the tabloids exercise a baleful influence on our democracy. They coarsen public discourse by demonising opponents, eliminating nuance and reducing every issue to black and white, good and bad. They cut politicians no slack, invariably putting the worst construction on everything they do and never, ever, giving them the benefit of the doubt. They erode trust in all journalism, not just their own.

They punish original thought, mature debate and progressive ideas with their knee-jerk conservatism: try suggesting for example, that euthanasia should be permitted in certain circumstances, that an idea emanating from Brussels might have merit, that the UK should relinquish its nuclear arsenal or that some British soldiers acted reprehensibly during the Troubles in Northern Ireland and deserve to be prosecuted. 

Politicians have long lived in fear of the tabloid press. Indeed the litmus test for government policies in modern British politics is not whether those policies are in the best long-term interests of the country, but how they will play in the next day’s Daily Mail or Sun.

Tony Blair used one of his final speeches after ten years as prime minister to denounce the media as a “feral beast tearing people and reputations to bits”, and to suggest that declining standards of political reporting “saps the country’s confidence and self-belief; it undermines its assessment of itself, its institutions, and above all else it reduces our capacity to take the right decisions in the right spirit for our future”. 

[See also: Can the BBC emerge unscathed from the Martin Bashir and Princess Diana crisis?]

He would not have dared deliver such a speech earlier in his tenure. On the contrary, he felt compelled to pay homage to Rupert Murdoch, and to feed stories to his tabloids to keep them sweet.

Arguably the single most egregious example of the red tops’ destructive power was their coverage of the EU referendum debate in 2016. The word “coverage” is a misnomer. They (and Boris Johnson’s mouthpiece, the Telegraph) made not the slightest attempt to inform and enlighten their readers, indulging instead in Soviet-style propaganda. They reduced a complex evaluation of the costs and benefits of EU membership to a xenophobic, jingoistic diatribe against a scheming, repressive European entity that existed only in their febrile imagination. They did the country, its youth in particular, a vast and lasting disservice.

If any other institution had inflicted such deep and protracted damage on our national life it would have been regulated long ago, but not the tabloid press. No politician would have the courage. 

There are, however, ominous signs that Johnson’s Conservative government intends to use the Bashir scandal to exert greater control over the BBC, whose political neutrality it mistakes for liberal enmity. Ministers are talking of reviewing the licence fee and imposing greater editorial oversight. Oliver Dowden, the culture secretary, wants to ensure that the BBC “projects British values”.

Hypocritical as ever, our shameless and mendacious tabloids will doubtless cheer the government on as it seeks to undermine what remains, despite last week’s shocking revelations, the most trusted media outlet in the country and the world.

[See also: The BBC and the government both have lessons to learn about institutional failure]