:: Article

English tabloid

By Max Dunbar.

The Diaries of a Fleet Street Fox, ‘Lilly Miles’, Constable 2013

Now is not a great time to be a tabloid journalist. True, up until a few years ago, it was a great profession to be in. No other country in the world has a tabloid culture like England. Tabloids set the agenda. They swing elections – or, at least, politicians think they do, and doesn’t that amount to the same thing? Even post Leveson, David Cameron has had this week to make a statement following a furore that erupted because Hilary Mantel may or may not have said something slightly rude about the Duchess of Cornwall.

In her Diaries of a Fleet Street Fox, sensational blogger Susie Boniface mapped out the redtop’s Brothers Grimm:

It’s just that, after a while, it becomes apparent that there are perhaps only a handful of real stories in the world, retold over and over again. The corrupt politician, the cheating spouse, the sick baby, Cinderella and Dick Whittington. Open any newspaper and you see a version of the same fairy tale played out with different names and dates, but each one is like a screw that follows the same thread. Barack Obama’s road to the White House, for example, is pure Dick. Most female celebrities indulge in a bit of warped Cinderella mythology. The economic crisis is just one big hunt to find a villain to pin it on.

This world comes with its own argot. As the Fox also points out, tabloids use language almost never seen in writing or heard in speech: ‘boffin,’ ‘fracas,’ ‘tot,’ ‘rumpus,’ ‘tryst’… ‘Has anybody, in the history of mankind, ever really romped?’ There is also a ‘quintessentially English’ combination of prurience and puritanism: tabloids show bare breasted or revealing shots of young women but asterisk out the vowels of harmless swearwords. Tabloid narrative is a kind of burlesque or commedia dell’arte, complete with balladeers, panting swordsmen, and chuckling, hook-handed villains.

The diaries begin with the Fox getting into a melodrama of her own. A check of her husband’s work emails – which he had incautiously left open on his computer – reveals that for some time he has been playing away with a woman several stones heavier than the Fox herself. Aside from mob bosses, the worst people to cheat on are journalists. In a matter of moments the Fox has found the cuckoldette’s street address: also, ‘date of birth, family history, workplace, friends’ details and her phone number. Not many wives could have done that’. She hits the woman’s doorstop and catches her love rat there. There follows a threat to kill, a rather awkward scene and a night in the cells.

The rest of the book blends a crash course in high media culture, with a personal story of the Fox trying to get her life back on track. The end of a long term relationship is generally a messy dirge and many of the passages make the reader feel like they have an angry drunk woman crying and raging on their shoulder. Not that there ain’t anything to cry and rage about. The process of divorce is as complex, expensive and time consuming as it always is. As when a person dies, there are so many horrible practicalities to go through, at the worst possible time. Aggravating this is the behaviour of Foxy’s husband, who seems intent on dragging out an already difficult situation. Harsher still is the feeling that a longterm investment of time and emotion has dissolved into so many misspent years. The Fox resolves: ‘It was not a waste. I will make it not a waste – somehow.’

The Diaries of a Fleet Street Fox is like chick lit written by Mickey Sabbath. The characters and dialogue are way over the top, but the spirit is infectious, the camaraderie of unpretentious people of the unexamined life, doing the best job in the world. The Fox turned down a university place to go into journalism, and worked her way up from the small, odd world of your average regional media (‘Ten minutes’ time, we’ll be going live from Hemel Hempstead, where a man’s been kicked’). She knows her stuff, and provides insights into the British public’s weird relationship with journalists. Everyone knows the British tabloid killed Diana but no one in the memorial crowds seem to have asked themselves why they wolfed down Diana gossip by the ton. Members of the public regularly turn to newspapers for financial gain, to advance their own agenda, to conduct petty disputes against neighbours and local authorities, or simply to get attention. And yet it is the hacks that are the vampires. The self righteousness and contradictory attitude that many newspaper readers have towards journalists, leads to some alarming scenes. A colleague of the Fox’s, doing a rural doorstop, is actually held at gunpoint by an outraged family.

The sessions have an elegaic air. Redundancies lurk on the horizon and everyone is acutely conscious that their next story could be their last. All the Leveson enquiry could amount to is the policing of a dying craft in a digital world. And there has never been less tolerance for bad journalism. Tabloid narrative on sensitive issues like welfare and immigration has had a catastrophic effect on government policy. The complicity of the police, the government and the Murdoch empire is beyond doubt, summed up in the immediate tabloidal image of David Cameron riding a retired police horse from Rebekah Brooks’s stable. And it now appears that hacks will go so low for a story as to intercept the voicemails of a murdered child.

There is a great deal of information that can be found about someone by legal means. From what I understand, most mobile phone users did not bother to change the voicemail code’s factory settings. Pressed by Naomi Campbell, Piers Morgan explained the technique:

It was pretty well-known that if you didn’t change your pin code when you were a celebrity who bought a new phone, then reporters could ring your mobile, tap in a standard factory setting number and hear your messages.

For any reporter accustomed to checking electoral registers and social networks, it’s easy for the hacking of mobiles in this simple way to become part of these ‘checks’. But there were journalists who took this beyond what anyone could have suspected or imagined.

Because of all this, the climate for state regulation of the press has never been better. Every journalist I respect thinks it is a bad idea. ‘Seriously,’ says Nick Cohen, ‘more journalists have been arrested this year than in Iran.’ An official censor sounds great, to some, when it’s going after the Daily Mail. But once that body’s in place, it can go after anyone. It can shut down campaigning leftwing journalists, or whistleblower-led investigations. Is it really so bad to hack the phone of an arms dealer? What the tabloid scandals of the 2010s tell us (scandals exposed not by judges or politicians, but by reporters) is that the answer to bad journalism is more journalism, not less.

Max Dunbar was born in London in 1981. He recently finished a full-length novel and his short fiction has appeared in various print and web journals. He is reviews editor of 3:AM.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, February 22nd, 2013.