by Brian Cathcart
What does it take to get a corporate scandal on to the front pages of the mass-circulation papers? Business, after all, is abstract and dull, and you don’t sell tabloids with abstract and dull. What you need, by and large, is a bogey-man, a human lightning rod for outrage and mockery. Think Gerald Ratner or Ernest Saunders. Think Tony Hayward of BP. Think Fred the Shred.
Fortunately for News International, though it is deep in the mire it apparently doesn’t have a suitable bogey-man. The editors, the headline-writers, the columnists and cartoonists just can’t find anyone at the top of the organisation who can be used as the symbol of all that has gone wrong at the News of the World and the Sun. Rupert Murdoch, for example, is obviously too uninteresting for the role.
That’s right. On the day after an avalanche of sensationally bad news fell upon Britain’s leading media company – news that linked it to six-figure bungs, bent coppers and secret tip-offs, and involved a proper, box-office celebrity to boot – News International and Murdoch were still not quite interesting enough to make the front page of the Daily Mail, the Daily Express, the Daily Star, the Daily Mirror or (of course not) the Sun.
The Mail, for example, preferred ‘We’re the fuel tax capital of Europe’, while the Express went for ‘Sleeping pills: how tiny dose can kill’. The lead story for the Sun was about a Welsh woman who receives benefit payments for her bad back but was also allegedly able to visit a theme park and go on the rides.
They all had something else on their minds beside the scandal that links the Sun with the country’s biggest police force and stretches (Andy Coulson) into Downing Street.
No wonder, you might think, that the social theorist Stuart Hall once described journalistic news values as ‘one of the most opaque structures of meaning in modern society’.
But enough of this archness. Perhaps we should be grateful, for though the story didn’t make the front page it wasn’t completely blanked. The old omerta that kept hacking out of the mass-circulation press for so long has given way to some serious coverage, with several papers devoting page-leads and pictures to the scandal.
The Mirror put it on page 4, and boldly came nearest to fingering the boss: ‘Scandal-hit media mogul Rupert Murdoch admitted yesterday there HAD been “a culture of illegal payments” at the Sun.’
The Star led page 7 with ‘Lotte: [that’s Charlotte Church] my sickening phone hack ordeal.’ The Express chose a more prominent right-hand page, page 5, for ‘Sun accused of paying a network of corrupt public officials for “salacious gossip”.’
The Mail gave it page 14, with four separate stories under the umbrella headline ‘The Sun “created culture of illegal payments to police”.’ The Sun itself was the most economical of all, with just 10 paragraphs down the side of page 4, the last three of them devoted to a quote from the boss, Mr Murdoch. None of these papers devoted a leading article or cartoon to the story, nor did it catch the eye of any of the many forthright columnists. Too much to ask.
Outside the mass-circulation market the scandal fared much better, appearing on all the other front pages, even that of the International Herald Tribune. The Telegraph was notably robust, while Murdoch’s Times (front page story, plus pages 6 and 7) betrayed only a modest hint of grumpiness about the haemorrhage of company money to hacking victims.
Conspicuous in it all, though, is the delicacy with which Rupert Murdoch himself is treated. Even the Guardian stopped short in its editorial of calling for his head on a plate and asked instead, in the politest possible way, for that of James Murdoch, the son.
Goodness knows the British press tradition of howling down and then ritually sacrificing the person at the top is ugly and sometimes unfair, and it should probably not be encouraged. It is striking, none the less, to find that the one case where restraint is shown is the one that involves the country’s most powerful press tycoon. He may be 81, foreign, disrespectful of most things British and often remarkably tactless – all excellent qualities in a bogey-man – but editors are just not interested in making him the next Fred the Shred.
Brian Cathcart teaches journalism at Kingston University London and tweets at @BrianCathcart