Toxic Tabloids

Updated: Feb 12

Sue Sparks takes a critical look at the dismally right-wing character of the British media – that even targets dissidents royals.

21 January 2020.

Two recent events – the general election and the furore surrounding Prince Harry and Meghan Markle – have again brought into focus the peculiarly toxic nature of Britain’s ‘tabloid’ press (a reference to its nature, not its physical format, which is now shared by the former quality ‘broadsheets’), by which I mean both the mass market/popular (The Sun, The Mirror, The Star, and corresponding Sundays – the ‘red-tops’) and mid-market titles (The Mail, The Express, and corresponding Sundays).

It might be thought that its influence would be in decline along with its print circulation, which fell by approximately 40% between 2010 and 2018 (the decline is continuing across the board: see Table 1), but this does not appear to be the case. Instead, in the last decade, the BBC and other broadcasters seem to have, at least to a greater extent than before, allowed their news agendas to be set by the tabloids, especially by the Daily Mail.

There is an enormous amount of scholarly work on the British press and I cannot do it justice in this short piece (there are links to some recent books at the end). But I want to raise some questions and outline ideas about what might be happening and why.

Britain: a special case?

First, is Britain unique in having such tabloids, and if so, why?

People often assume that every country has its equivalents of the Sun and the Mail, but this is not true. Even where a tabloid is the biggest-selling title, broadsheets still feature among the top three most read titles in many European countries.

In the USA, the norm is for the press to be non-partisan, serving a whole local market rather than being stratified horizontally into popular and elite titles across the national market. It has the Murdoch-owned NY Post, which shares the Sun’s fondness for sensationalism, and oddities like the National Enquirer, but there is no national tabloid press of the British kind.

There are a few quasi-national titles in the broadsheet segment (The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal) and the tabloid-like USA Today, which is bland and quite unlike our popular press.

In Europe, Bild Zeitung in Germany and Kronen Zeitung in Austria are probably the closest equivalents, being both the biggest selling titles in their markets and rabidly right-wing.

The readership of the press divides roughly along the lines of ABC1 for the ‘quality’ press, C2DE for the mass-market tabloids, and a mixture in the mid-market. The tabloids do reach a significant number of ABC1s, however, as their circulations are high.

There has also been a shift in favour of the mid-market titles: in the early 2000s, the mass-market titles accounted for 54% of the market and mid-market tabloids held 27%, with broadsheets at 19% , while in 2018, mass market tabloids accounted for 48%, mid-market tabloids 33%, and broadsheets were unchanged at 19%.

One reason for this stratification by demographic – or class, if you prefer – is that Britain (I use the term loosely, as the Northern Irish and Scottish press have some distinct characteristics) has a large population but a relatively small geographical area, making it physically possible to print and distribute papers across most of the country by the early morning.

Social segmentation

This now matters less, of course, because of cold-type technology, telecommunications, and satellite printing plants, but it was crucial in the period when the nature of the press was determined. That meant there could be a national press, but a press that maximised sales and advertising revenue by segmentation: the press could reach a higher proportion of the population but maximise its appeal to advertisers by targeting different social and economic segments.

The internet has largely removed that selling point, but this is not especially relevant to the argument. Several press groups also combined these categories through having both broadsheets and tabloids under a single owner, but several did and do not.

Together with this stratification by demographic goes hyper-partisanship. The national but stratified nature of the press removed the need to appeal to all voters of different political persuasions within a smaller geographical area, which is the main pattern in the US and large European countries.

In a local market in the US there is normally a single title, which aims to maximise its appeal to richer readers to gain more lucrative advertising. An ostensibly ‘neutral’ and objective editorial stance (within the limits of bourgeois politics) was and remains the best strategy to avoid alienating sections of readers. Stratification and multiple national titles permit partisanship in the UK.

By contrast, in broadcasting, the UK national broadcasters were mandated to be politically neutral as part of the funding model – the licence fee for the BBC and an advertising monopoly for ITV – and this made sense from an audience-maximising point of view.

The overwhelming majority of UK titles, accounting for the bulk of circulation and readership, are pro-Tory. The other characteristic of the British press is the concentration of ownership. According to Media Landscapes:

Three companies dominated the market in 2015, accounting for 71% of circulation. In 2015 two companies, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp UK and Lord Rothermere’s Daily Mail Group, accounted for nearly 60% of national newspaper circulation.

The picture differs slightly if we include online and mobile readers. The strong online reach of the Daily Mail Group makes it the most dominant, closely followed by Trinity Mirror and the Guardian, which have strong online readerships. In terms of concentration, data shows that five companies account for 80% of all consumption, online and offline.[1]

The expansion of online readership, though hard to measure accurately, has obviously offset the decline in print, though it cannot remedy the economic losses, as newspapers have failed to match their share of offline advertising online, and in any case, online advertising is far less lucrative.

Tabloid news contamination

Why and how has the tabloid press been able to set the news agenda more widely? Why in some ways are we seeing the ‘tabloidisation’ of the broadcasters, especially the BBC?

I would argue that the fragmentation and increasingly competitive media environment is one reason. To call it more competitive when it remains concentrated in ownership might seem a contradiction, but the competition is largely for consumer attention in an environment where there is now an almost infinite number of claims on that attention, from streaming services to YouTube channels and news sites like Vox, Vice, Buzzfeed, and so on, as well as social media.

In that situation, the fact that media outlets are resorting to more and more sensationalism makes sense. The tabloid press is constantly in search of ‘exclusives’, mostly involving celebrities and public figures, and this has led directly to its worst excesses in terms of phone hacking, bribery, and invasions of privacy, which it then justifies in terms of ‘public interest’.

At the same time, the underlying business model of the traditional media is broken, and its financial ability to invest in producing quality news output, even where it really wants to, has been reduced. Alongside cuts to foreign correspondents and newsrooms by the national press, the local press, which could have been expected to hold local politicians to account at least to some extent, has more or less disappeared. Even in the quality press, opinion columns and lifestyle content are eclipsing investigation and factual reporting.

Arguably, in the past, the BBC represented an interface between the news agenda of the quality press and the majority of the population, which did not read it, but now in its more ‘flagship’ news output – the Today programme, the daily evening TV news, Panorama, and Question Time – it is driven by the agendas of the mid-market tabloids in search of audience shares to justify the licence fee. Moreover, it is fearful of the governing party because of the threat to its funding.

Channel Four News remains truer to the original BBC model. Johnson’s open threats to both the BBC and Channel Four show that it makes no difference if you try to curry favour, however; the press owners have long been gunning for the BBC and Johnson will no doubt reward them.

The BBC has many other facets and in some of its online content it reuses output for documentaries on Radio 4 or the World Service that often embody much more serious news values. Its recent announcement of its planned output on climate change represents a welcome departure, and it may be responding to awareness that it has lost the trust of large sections of the audience during recent years.

The political class has played its part too in this process, with New Labour actively courting the Murdoch press and even the Mail. Cameron followed this pattern, in particular by abandoning any attempt to regulate the press after the phone hacking scandal by ignoring the recommendations of the Leveson commission investigating it.

From Miliband to Meghan

The vitriol unleashed against Ed Miliband was in part out of fear that he would place restraints on the media if he had won in 2015. [2] Lest we have forgotten quite how bad it got, and how not so subtle anti-semitism featured, this photo will remind us:

More importantly, I would argue that Brexit and the politics of populism have given a new lease of life to the tabloids. No longer is it mainly a question of tits and telly, bread and circuses for the masses. There has been a sustained strategy of coverage to push the whole package of reactionary ideas – xenophobia, jingoism, attacks on ‘elites’, MPs, the judiciary, and climate protesters. One author discusses the right-wing construction of ‘the people’ by the press in recent years.[3]

Even the Harry and Meghan saga, which many on the Left may be tempted to dismiss as the usual distraction of monarchy, embodies these ideas. Meghan is foreign, not white, a feminist, and environmentally aware – and therefore ticks all the hate boxes. The attack on Harry as ‘boring’ and ‘woke’ – whereas when he was a drunken prankster dressing as a Nazi and playing strip billiards he was ‘loveable’ – is part of this too.

Whatever our attitudes to the monarchy and to the Sussexes’ hypocrisy in using private jets etc, we on the Left need to recognise that the attacks on them by the tabloids are not progressive. And we should also be aware that the invasion of their privacy and that of other celebrities – the breathtaking cheek of the Mail’s defence in its court case against Meghan needs to be read to be believed[4] – is indicative of the tabloids’ willingness to invade the privacy of many ordinary people too, victims of crime and disasters for example, such as the occasion when they hacked the phone of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler.

We are living through a time when the media is unprecedentedly diverse in one sense, and the internet allows us all to be journalists and publishers. But in another way, the media is disturbingly uniform in its pursuit of breaking news or ‘exclusives’ that will cause us to click on headlines, share stories, and retweet. Lies and manipulation abound.

In a way, that is nothing new, but the speed with which they spread, and their overall reach, is novel. It is a challenge to us to develop some robust alternatives, as well as campaigning vigorously for accountability from the BBC (in return for continued public funding), for the farce of self-regulation of the press to be overturned, and for concentrations of media ownership to be broken up. We should also consider arguing for a publicly owned and user-controlled social media network.

Sue Sparks has long been active in socialist organisations and campaigns. Until recently she had been living in Hong Kong.

Further reading

Curran, James and Seaton, Jean. Power Without Responsibility: the press, broadcasting, and the internet in Britain. Routledge 2018.

Freedman, Des. The Contradictions of Media Power. Bloomsbury, 2014.

Conboy, Martin and Bingham, Adrian. Tabloid Century: the popular press in Britain, 1896 to the present. Peter Lang, 2015.


[1] Media landscapes: United Kingdom

[2] Freedman, Des. OpenDemocracy Was it the ‘Sun wot won it’? Lessons from the 1992 and 2015 elections.

[3] Zappatini, Franco. From Euroscepticism to outright populism: the evolution of British tabloids


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