On the first Sunday after the demise of the “News of the World” the sunday tabloids had a moment of opportunity to reach out to new readers and boost their falling circulation. A time, it might have been thought, for some quality journalism – eye catching headlines, exposés of wrongdoers, based on solid investigation. The reaction of other tabloids was a test of journalistic responsibility and integrity in the post-Murdoch age. It is a test which the “Sunday Mirror” and the “People” failed spectacularly.
Faced with the challenge of attracting new readers both tabloids turned to what they know best: intrusion and invasion of privacy. The “People” was, as Roy Greenslade pointed out in the Guardian this week – once at the forefront of tabloid investigative journalism. In the 1950s and 1960s it saw a
prolonged period of groundbreaking investigative endeavour and enterprise that was to influence the following generations. He transformed reporters into quasi-detectives who set out to expose black marketeers, evil landlords and petrol thieves.
Today the “People” is in apparently terminal decline – with a weekly circulation of less than 500,000. In its first post “News of the World” edition it led on a story about … the Duchess of Cambridge – “Is Kate too thin to get pregnant?” Readers were treated to a discussion about her weight, body mass index and alleged appointments with a gynaecologist. This was followed by some speculation from “experts”
Specialists believe The Duchess of Cambridge needs to put on weight to increase her hopes of having a Royal heir. … But experts last night told The People that they would urge Kate to pile on the pounds to increase her chances.
In case the editor has not spotted it this is private information. It concerns health and pregnancy and is supported by no public interest of any kind. This is the kind of story that a responsible editor should not run and a proper regulator would deal with severely.
The “People” had two other stories mentioned on the front page – one about “Corrie Ken” and the other about Cheryl and Ashley Cole. The latter occupied the full front page of its sister publication the “Sunday Mirror”: with a headline “Ashley’s Rat it again”. This is a “kiss and tell” story about Ashley Cole and an air hostess. At the relevant time Mr Cole was – well, single. The story features a feeble attempt to generate some public interest by suggesting that the encounter took place while “Ashley was wooing Cheryl” and by raking over some old stories about how he “tried to cover up his flings”. The intrusion and the absence of public interest are obvious to even a tabloid editor. But it appears that putting Ashley and Cheryl on the cover is thought to be a way to boost the Sunday Mirror’s current circulation of just under 1.1 million.
These stories are a powerful illustration of the need for proper regulation of the press. The “News of the World” had to be killed off because its editors and journalists believed that the end of “celebrity scoops” justified the means of privacy intrusion. Today’s stories were not the product of phone hacking but they demonstrate that the culture of disregard of private rights remains in place. The Editors’ Code tells newspapers that they must not invade privacy without proper public interest justification. For Mirror Group newspapers it appears to remain a dead letter.