[Insert gratuitous headline here]
So confusing. Last week, as an all-round postmodern media practitioner embedded in a broadly liberal ideology, I had to pretend that tabloid newspapers were unequivocally good things, bringing a valuable voice to a previously disenfranchised sector of our community.
This week, thanks to Rebekah “Sideshow Bob” Brooks, I’m supposed to believe that tabloids are Satan’s calling cards, flouting privacy laws and taking advantage of the common man slash woman slash cross-dressing alien.
Ironically, the very structure of tabloid journalism, with its aggressive, hysterical construction of society as Us versus Them, (“War on Aliens”, to use the xenophobia example from 2008) informs the way we’re asked to judge that journalism.
Yes, it’s laudable to do the very necessary job of providing a voice for a heretofore silenced community. But if one points out that this is slightly compromised by training them to use that voice to screech about “Moffie geskiet in sy gat” (Moffie shot in the arse) rather than primarily to call for digging ourselves out of the dark hole of inadequate education, one is inevitably accused of entirely denying that voice.
Perhaps it’s naive but it seems illogical to suggest that a class of reader has a crying need for a platform to talk about issues important to them but won’t bother doing it if there isn’t also a nice pair of tits on page three to attract them. It also seems a little patronising. But market forces speak, apparently, so who am I to argue?
Still, if we are to believe a great tabloid headline from the past then, “God is in the grammar”. Which means that if you’re being trained by tabloids to believe that “Jesus lives in my toilet”, your grasp of language, and its concomitant, praxis, is going to lean towards a kind of dialogue that is unsubtle and oppositional. Are tabloids really teaching people to read, or are they teaching them to read only what they want to hear?
A recent tabloid cover featured Julius Malema ripping his face off to reveal that he is in fact Satan. I’m not questioning the validity of this—I’m sure the good folk at Sondag have done their research—but it does make me uncomfortable when we’re demonising public figures. It’s a short step from casting out demons to killing lesbians (The Citizen could recycle their clever “Lesbians lose appeal” headline).
Our tabloids are no Der Stürmer, it’s true. No publication is unambiguously bad for its readership. And at least our tabloids have the moral high ground over the News of the World.
We don’t hack people’s cellphones; we just make it up. But we have to accept that, if you’re giving people a voice, you need to be responsible for what that voice says, and very aware that you’re determining the way readers think about society, and therefore act on society, rather than just echoing them for financial gain.
Chris Roper is the editor of M&G Online. Follow him on Twitter: @ChrisRoperZA