July 14, 2024

For Years, the Tabloids’ Sting Kept British Politicians in Line

Big mistake.

“ ‘Fat, Jealous’ Clare Brands Page 3 Porn” was The Sun’s headline in response. Its editor, Rebekah Wade (now Rebekah Brooks and the chief executive of News International, Mr. Murdoch’s British subsidiary), sent a busload of semi-dressed models to jeer at Ms. Short at her house in Birmingham. The paper stuck a photograph of Ms. Short’s head over the body of a topless woman and found a number of people to declare that, in fact, they thoroughly enjoyed the sexy photos.

“Even Clare has boobs, but obviously she’s not proud of them like we are of ours,” it quoted a 22-year-old named Nicola McLean as saying.

It is the fear of incidents like this, along with political necessity, that has long underpinned the uneasy collusion between British politicians and even the lowest-end tabloids here.

However much they might deplore tabloid methods and articles — the photographers lurking in the bushes; the reporters in disguise entrapping subjects into sexual indiscretion or financial malfeasance; the editors paying tens of thousands of dollars for exclusive access to the mistresses of politicians and sports stars; the hidden taping devices; the constant stream of stories about illicit sex romps — politicians have often been afraid to say so publicly, for fear of losing the papers’ support or finding themselves the target of their wrath.

If showering politicians with political rewards for cultivating his support has been the carrot in the Murdoch equation, then punishing them for speaking out has generally been the stick. But the latest revelations in the phone-hacking scandal appear to have broken the spell, emboldening even Murdoch allies like Prime Minister David Cameron to criticize his organization and convene a commission to examine press regulation.

The power to harass and intimidate is hardly limited to the Murdoch newspapers; British tabloids are all guilty to some extent of using their power to discredit those who cross them, politicians and analysts say.

“The tabloid press in Britain is very powerful, and it’s also exceedingly aggressive, and it’s not just News Corp.; The Mail is very aggressive,” said John Whittingdale, a Conservative member of Parliament who is chairman of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee. “They do make or break reputations, so obviously politicians tread warily.”

Those who do not pay a price. Cherie Blair, wife of former Prime Minister Tony Blair, was regularly tortured in print by the right-leaning Daily Mail because she made no effort to cultivate it and because it was not an admirer of her husband’s Labour government. In a stream of articles, The Mail portrayed her as greedy, profligate and a follower of wacky alternative-medicine regimes, selecting unflattering photos to make her look chunky and ill-dressed, her mouth invariably curled in a strange rictus.

But politicians have always been most afraid of the sting of The Sun and its Sunday sister (at least until this Sunday, when it is to close), The News of the World, because the papers’ good will is so important politically.

“They go on little feeding frenzies against various politicians,” said Roy Greenslade, a professor of journalism at City University London. Until the floodgates opened on Wednesday, when the outrage over the latest phone-hacking revelations had politicians voicing disgust in a cathartic parliamentary session, most members of Parliament were terrified of crossing Mr. Murdoch, Professor Greenslade said.

“Privately, M.P.’s say all sorts of things, but most of them have kept very, very quiet about Rupert Murdoch until now,” he added. “When you are facing the wrath of News International, you can bet they will turn up anything about you — whether it be true or just spun in a certain way.”

Labour politicians still shudder about the fate of Neil Kinnock, the party leader in the early 1990s, who was leading the Conservative Party’s John Major in the 1992 election when The Sun mounted a sustained attack on him. The reasons were political — the paper supported the Conservative Party — but the means were personal. Mr. Kinnock was the subject of a barrage of articles depicting him as inept, long-winded, strange looking, and even mentally unstable.

The day before the election, The Sun printed a package of articles under the headline “Nightmare on Kinnock Street.” It printed a picture of a fat topless woman and the warning, “Here’s How Page 3 Will Look Under Kinnock!” And, in an image he would never live down, the paper printed a large front-page photograph of Mr. Kinnock’s head inside a light bulb, under the headline: “If Kinnock Wins Today Will the Last Person to Leave Britain Please Turn Out the Lights.”

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=153e5074ba6f14628192211e44579909

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