An early entry in the tabloid editors’ manual is a device known as story selection.
While other newspapers and broadcast outlets may think the main story is, say, a global climate summit or war in Syria, the tabloid editor looks constantly for news that reinforces his paper’s worldview. The aim is to keep them angry and embittered about the right issues.
An obvious manifestation of this is the constant stream of stories related to immigrants, asylum seekers and benefit claimants in the Mail, Express and Sun. Whatever else may be happening in the world it is important to remind people that the greatest threat to their happiness, prosperity and security is the free-loading antics of the unemployed, foreign and “other”. The archetypal story focuses on one person who represents all three.
A crucial part of story selection is the skill of knowing which news to ignore and marginalise too. So, many hundreds of thousands of people may demonstrate against government cuts, for an alternative economic vision or against a major war only to see no coverage whatsoever in the following days papers. The silence alone tells us we are marginal, our views can be ignored while the most trivial of royal or celebrity gossip bedecks the front pages.
The problem arises when there are stories which cannot be ignored and yet are difficult to fit neatly into the worldview. Such has been the horsemeat scandal.
From 16 January, when traces of horse DNA were found in meat products provided to supermarkets by firms in Ireland and Yorkshire, to 14 February, when suppliers based in Aberystwyth and Todmorden were arrested on suspicion of contaminating food, this has been a story which pressed too many tabloid buttons to ignore. It has moral panic, exaggerated fear, genuine public interest and universal relevance (it’s food, for heaven’s sake).
The problem for tabloids, in particular the more political “black-tops”, is that they have trained their readers to expect a message alongside their “news” complete with scapegoats. The obvious message is not good. Not only does it not fit the worldview, it flies somewhat aggressively in its face. You don’t have to be very political or sceptical to see that the discovery of horsemeat in food that claims to be beef suggests that what we have here is an industry that lacks strong enough regulation by the state.
But the right-wing press is very much against state regulation. They want “quangos”, like the Food Standards Agency, abolished. They supported the Tory promise in 2010 of “a bonfire of the quangos” and the powers of the FSA were indeed weakened. The ridiculing of health and safety laws is, so to speak, meat and drink to them.
What can the tabloids say here? What to make of their dilemma? The Mail and Express decided to reach for less commonly used and more complicated tabloid techniques such as “distraction”.
Early in the crisis the Express ran a story headed “It wouldn’t have happened in America” based on the tenuous claim that the slaughter of horses for their meat had been banned in the US. I say tenuous because almost immediately their own readers posted website comments claiming that this ban had been introduced in only some states and had since been repealed in many of those. As a solution, in any case, a ban would be state intervention at its highest, and as it could only come about as a result of a EU directive it would be portrayed by the same paper as pen-pushing Eurocrats denying us the right to choose what we eat.
As the story unfolded it became clear that the contaminated supplies did indeed come from around the EU: from Ireland, the UK, Poland and France. The Mail made a half-hearted attempt to blame foreign suppliers, but this was cut short by horse-meat discoveries and arrests in Wales and Yorkshire.
The most bizarre attempt to square the populist circle came from Mail columnist, Richard Littlejohn. He decided to attack the EU for failing to regulate food better on the grounds that they were too busy involving themselves in the wrong kind of regulation — the enforcement of silly, petty rules which got in the way of traditional British customs. The custom, in particular, of selling jam in second-hand jars.
Re-hashing one of his old stories he wrote on 12 February that it was “funny how the EU can enforce strict food hygiene regulations which prevent the Women’s Institute selling jam in second-hand jars but can’t stop Eastern European horsemeat being passed off as beef.” What he is alluding to here is an old claim that EU regulations prevent the use of re-used jars in the production of jam. (In fact this rule applies only to food businesses and does not apply to charities and occasional events. Despite the fact that the correction was made by the EU and the Women’s Institute back in October in response to his own stories Littlejohn felt he could repeat his false claims while at the same time suggesting that the problem was “Eastern European” horsemeat as if the British versions were absolutely fine.)
There was unintended comedy in another response from the Daily Mail. On 24 February their headline brought to the attention of the nation that “contaminated produce may have been served to the Queen at Royal Ascot”. Oh no! Bad enough that she may have been served horsemeat, but couldn’t it at least have been served in the privacy of her own home? But at Royal Ascot! The shame, the national ignominy!
It was left to Caroline Lucas and Natalie Bennett of the Green Party to draw some of the wider political lessons in the Guardian on 12 February. In a piece whose title located the origins of the scandal “in the heart of our economic model” they went beyond the obvious attack on de-regulation to highlight the vice-like grip of huge corporations on the food market, the way in which a low-wage long-hours economy drives the market towards cheap, mass-produced ready meals and the lack of adequate education on healthy food.
These aren’t hugely complicated lessons to spell out and they relate to the lived experience of the vast majority of people. They don’t appear in a broadsheet paper rather than a tabloid because they are more highbrow.
They do so because they are all lessons which suggest the threat to our health and wellbeing is not the poor or foreign “other” but the subjugation of all wider considerations to the untrammelled rule of the market.