Britain’s newspapers are probably the worst in the world, aside from the state-controlled newspapers under dictatorships, which are bad for different reasons.
Some British newspapers, such as the Financial Times or the Guardian, are no worse than their equivalents in other countries; but Britain’s redtops are foul in a way rare elsewhere, even in countries where Rupert Murdoch owns many newspapers.
This result is a triumph of capitalist market forces. It happens because Britain’s redtops have an unusually favorable marketplace.
Britain has one of the densest newspaper markets in the world. It has a large concentrated population and (except for Scotland) a single newspaper market.
Because of an early concentration of the population in cities, Britain has also, historically, had a relative high ratio of newspaper readership to population.
Most large-population countries have regionalised newspaper markets. For example, the top-selling paper in France is Ouest-France [“West France”], published in Rennes, not Paris. The top-selling paper in Germany (after Bild, on which more later) is Süddeutsche Zeitung [“South German Newspaper”], published in Munich, not Berlin.
The USA’s top-selling paper is the Wall Street Journal, and India’s is the Times of India: deliberately “up-market” newspapers selling at a high cover price to people who want serious business news, while mass-market circulation in those countries is of local newspapers.
Thus the Sun and the Daily Mail are almost the whole world’s top-selling newspapers. They are outsold only by some Japanese newspapers; some state-circulated Chinese papers; the Times of India; and Germany’s Bild, possibly the only other newspaper in the world as foul as Britain’s redtops.
On the face of it, the high sales should improve the press. Producing well-researched, well-written articles costs money. If papers can spread the cost over three million readers rather than a few, then they should be able to provide more well-researched, well-written articles.
And so they do — if “research” is taken to mean phone-hacking and bribery, and “well-written” is taken to mean crafting stories for maximum gossipy sensation!
In theory, a dense market could go either of two ways: one defined by a “drive to the top”, with newspapers competing to outdo each in imaginatively-researched, thoughtful articles for attentive readers; and another defined by the “drive to the bottom” with papers competing to be bought “for a laugh” by inattentive readers, maybe starved of real gossip in their everyday lives, and entertained by having the world’s affairs presented to them in faux-intimacy.
The “drive to the bottom” is easier, and spirals into a vicious circle: the papers debase the markets and the markets debase the papers.
The rise of radio, TV, web, and freesheet news has consolidated the vicious circle. These media cannot provide the depth of good print journalism. Equally, freesheets cannot provide the sensationalist fake-gossip of papers like the Sun (because it’s too expensive), and TV news has no special motive to try (because channels can attract audience by the soaps, game-shows, and “reality-TV” stuff into which their news broadcasts slot).
They all provide basic news, on the level of rehashes of the press releases and newsagency dispatches that come into their offices. The redtops can assume their readers get their news elsewhere, and focus on getting themselves bought “for a laugh”.
The driven-to-the-bottom newspaper market debases public discourse, by “drowning out” intelligent public debate. It does not necessarily mean newspapers rigorously pushing a conservative “line” for their right-wing billionaire owners: if it serves circulation, the redtops will publish sensationalist, gossipy attacks on the rich and powerful. But the market also gives the owners huge scope to flatter and nurture whatever popular prejudices they find congenial.
The capitalist market is not a democratic basis for organising the media.