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The characteristics of the national press: sex and scandal

Papers and politics

None of the big national newspapers 'belongs' to a political party. However, each paper has an idea of what kind of reader it is appealing to and a fairly predictable political outlook. Each can therefore be seen, rather simplistically, as occupying a certain position on the right-left spectrum.

As you can see, the right seems to be heavily over-represented in the national press. This is not because such a large majority of British people hold right-wing views. It is partly because the press tends to be owned by Conservative party supporters. In any case, a large number of readers are not very interested in the political coverage of a paper. They buy it for the sport, or the human interest stories, or for some other reason.


The other feature of the national press which is partially the result of the commercial interests of its owners is its shallowness. Few other European countries have a popular press which is so 'low'. Some of the tabloids have almost given up even the pretence of dealing with serious matters. Apart from sport, their pages are full of little except stories about the private lives of famous people. Sometimes their 'stories' are not articles at all, they are just excuses to show pictures of almost naked women. During the 1980s, page three of the Sun became infamous in this respect and the women who posed for its photographs became known as 'page three girls'.

The desire to attract more readers at all costs has meant that, in the late twentieth century, even the broadsheets in Britain can look rather 'popular' when compared to equivalent 'quality' papers in some other countries. They are still serious newspapers containing high-quality articles whose presentation of factual information is usually reliable. But even they now give a lot of coverage to news with a 'human interest' angle when they have the opportunity.

This emphasis on revealing the details of people's private lives has led to discussion about the possible need to restrict the freedom of the press. This is because, in behaving this way, the press has found itself in conflict with another British principle which is as strongly felt as that of freedom of speech - the right to privacy. Many journalists now appear to spend their time trying to discover the most sensational secrets of well-known personalities, or even of ordinary people who, by chance, find themselves connected with some newsworthy situation. There is a widespread feeling that, in doing so, they behave too intrusively.

Complaints regarding invasions of privacy are dealt with by the Press Complaints Commission (PCC). This organization is made up of newspaper editors and journalists. In other words, the press is supposed to regulate itself. It follows a Code of Practice which sets limits on the extent to which newspapers should published details of people's private lives. Many people are not happy with this arrangement and various governments have tried to formulate laws on the matter. However, against the right to privacy the press has successfully been able to oppose the concept of the public's 'right to known'.

Of course, Britain is not the only country where the press is controlled by large companies with the same single aim of making profits. So why is the British press more frivolous? The answer may lie in the function of the British press for its readers. British adults never read comics. These publications, which consist entirely of picture stories, are read only by children. It would be embarrassing for an adult to be seen reading one. Adults who want to read something very simple, with plenty of pictures to help them, have almost nowhere to go but the national press. Most people don't use newspapers for 'serious' news. For this, they turn to another source - broadcasting.


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