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Roy Greenslade is one of the U.K.’s foremost media commentators. He writes a blog on the media for British newspaper The Guardian, and also writes on the subject for London’s Evening Standard. A former editor of the Daily Mirror, Greenslade is also a professor of journalism at London’s City University.
WWD: You’ve written extensively about the phone-hacking scandal that happened in the U.K. Do you think anything similar could happen in the U.S.?
This story first appeared in the August 15, 2014 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
Roy Greenslade: I think that the competition between national newspapers in Britain is unique. We’re the only country with 10, 11 titles competing for an audience on a national basis every day. Historically, the competition has been the most vibrant, or the most bitter and contested, amongst our popular papers. And we also have daily and Sunday papers competing with each other, even within the same group. Competition is supposed to be a good thing, it’s supposed to produce the best kind of journalism, but it also is capable of producing the worst, because there is only a limited amount of genuine news and therefore you need to, I think, go to extreme ends on occasion to get exclusives. And when you add that on to the fact that we live in the celebrity age, it means that the competition to get this kind of material was likely to lead, always, to bad behavior.
I don’t think it would happen in the United States for that reason [of there being fewer national newspapers]. But that’s apart from the fact that in the United States, there are checkout newspapers, the Star and the National Enquirer, but first of all they’re weeklies, they don’t compete much with each other and they are not treated seriously by the population. They’ve been much more on the back-foot in recent years, their circulations have dived considerably and they’re not…mainstream. Whereas [British] newspapers — the Mail, The Sun, The Mirror, they are mainstream newspapers and what they publish is treated by their readers as being true and honest.
WWD: Do you think that appetite for celebrity news will diminish following the scandal?
R.G.: No, I don’t think that it’s reduced the appetite because, unfortunately, it’s part of our culture. And the interest in celebrities is still very high. I think it does mean people have to be careful. I think celebrities are hitting back as well. George Clooney’s sort of open letter in the USA Today, complaining about the Mail publishing a false story about his relationship with Amal Alamuddin and her mother, that is an example of the way in which [celebrities] are going onto the other foot now.
You can actually see that popular newspapers’ circulations have been in decline, all throughout the last 25 years. But in 1997, following the death of Princess Diana, they went down even more dramatically and I think it’s symbolic of the fact that they lost, with a single death…their most popular sales-winning celebrity. Although the Duchess of Cambridge is in the papers every day, she doesn’t have the same sales-winning appeal that Diana did. Firstly, because she is quite clearly sensible and there aren’t three people in her marriage, except for George.
WWD: How do you think that the tabloids have acted with the new generation of British royals?
R.G.: The death of Princess Diana meant that when the Palace approached editors about treating William and Harry in a nicer fashion, leaving them alone while they’re at school, that’s carried over into their adult life. So apart from one or two controversies involving Harry…he’s largely been able to have a sort of private life. [William and Kate] are definitely much more able at managing the news, at controlling what will be shown and what won’t be. They took action against Closer magazine in France when they pictured the Duchess topless and there’s been another example quite recently of a sort of inappropriate [shot]…[published in] Australia but that wasn’t used elsewhere. Again, the British editors one time would have never bothered about [those] niceties, but now they are very acutely aware that it would be counterproductive with their audience to do that.
WWD: Do you think there’s an upside to how aggressive the British press can be, in the sense that public figures are more accountable?
R.G.: I think the argument of tabloid editors and journalists is that when people become famous, whenever they achieve a certain fame, a recognition, they must accept the downside of fame. That there is a penalty for their fame to be paid and that is that they are role models and therefore their backgrounds are open to investigation. I don’t share that, I think that it’s just the opposite that [the papers are] really doing. They’re just trying to pull down the role model…the only reason they do it is because they know that salacious content is likely to be a good seller. They are basically appealing to the lowest common denominator. I think, if there has to be a penalty for fame…it’s still the case that there must be a very good reason for publicizing secrets about someone — they’ve got to be guilty of a gross hypocrisy.
WWD: In terms of readers migrating online, and the success of sites such as the Mail Online, how do you think that’s changed the way editors cover stories?
R.G.: What’s significant about the success of Mail Online is that it is the rebirth of the tabloid form. Most people read Mail Online for the so-called “Sidebar of Shame” and the gossip. A huge number of people who access Mail Online do so in the United States. So clearly they are appealing to an audience in the States and in Britain and around the world indeed who show that celebrity gossip, pictures of scantily clad women and so on are big sellers. It’s not journalism, it is really a form of titillation and I don’t think it even pretends to be journalism — although perhaps they hide it behind journalism — but it’s not what journalism is about. It’s not informing people so that they know where to vote. I don’t think the views of Kim Kardashian on the situation in Gaza are really very relevant. So it can’t be said that it’s what journalism is for — it’s just a branch of journalism, a subbranch, a tweak of journalism. It might make the Mail very happy because it gets lots of hits, but I think it’s largely irrelevant to why we became journalists and what journalism is about. I know many of the young people who work on Mail Online, and the truth is they can’t get any other jobs. They hate doing it, they hate rewriting everyone and scouring the magazines and writing silly captions about scantily clad celebrities, but the decline of the number of journalism jobs means that they are virtually forced to sell their souls to go and do that.
I think that the important thing people don’t realize is that newspapers are not a democracy, they are an autocracy, perhaps one of the last major autocracies in business. You are not protected by your union because…union strength has diminished to the point of being largely irrelevant. You are at the beck and call of people who can, if they don’t like your face, get rid of you fairly easily. And of course many, many people now are not hired on staff but hired as casuals, or interns or work experience and they’re at the mercy of their employers — “you either do what I say or you go.” I think that’s an iniquitous way to employ people and it also absolutely ensures that people will not be subject to any ethical considerations.
WWD: Do you think that’s a result of the increasingly free access to journalism?
R.G.: I think it’s a combination of factors, to be honest. There’s no doubt that the decline of print and the decline of profitability of print has already weakened job prospects. And then the rise of the ’Net, everyone thought, Oh, this will be great, we’re our own masters now, in fact turns out not to be the case, because you’re still at the mercy of your employer. The big media companies still control vast swathes of the Net and there are a lot of intelligent bloggers out there, but winning an audience is a very difficult thing to do.
WWD: Do you foresee print ever completely dying out?
R.G.: In my interview with The Sun editor [David Dinsmore, which ran in The Guardian Aug. 11], he conceded that he is basically managing print’s decline. But with two million [readers] a day, it’s going to be around for a long time and the same would be true I guess of the Mail at 1.7 million. We’ve also seen that The Independent selling only 60,000 still survives. So there will be print, but it will be for a very small section of the population. And I think we’ve not yet kicked in with what we might call the digital natives, those people born at the beginning of this century. When that generation reaches what would normally be the newspaper-buying age, which we take to be in the mid-20s onwards, [they’re] not going to have the habit. So I think the digital natives, the midteens of today, in 10 years’ time will not be interested in newspapers at all.
WWD: Do you think they’ll still be interested in consuming that content on different platforms?
R.G.: I think we’re going to have newspapers for the elite, so I think that when you get to sort of those people who read what used to be called the broadsheets — The Guardian, Times, the Financial Times, the Independent, Telegraph, the Economist and so on — you’ll have these newspapers around for the intelligentsia, but I think that the rest of the population will go online and they will consume their trivia online.
WWD: Do you see a difference in how biased U.S. and U.K. media outlets are, taking for example coverage of the conflict in the Middle East?
R.G.: All media outlets are biased. They like to think they’re not, but why should they choose one story to be 10 minutes on TV and another one two minutes? Why should they choose this one to be a major headline and that one to be tucked away somewhere else? So that choice betrays bias, you can’t give equal weight to absolutely everything. But Syria has disappeared from the news, it’s all now about ISIS and Iraq. Afghanistan, now that the troops have come out from Afghanistan, who is reporting from Afghanistan? The very fact that there are these different newspaper titles in Britain is that the same news exists, but it’s framed differently, in a different narrative in each of those outlets. That already proves that there is bias. It can be good bias or bad bias, other people have to make their minds up on that. It’s because [viewers and readers] want their old views repeated back to them, they are wanting to hear their prejudices confirmed. They don’t convert most of these [news] organizations, but they do feed often with misinformation, often with bias, leaving out other points of view, reinforcing true falsehood, deeply held prejudices — they do confirm people in what they think.
WWD: What are your preferred papers?
R.G.: I’m still a believer in information, as much information as possible, I like lots of different opinions and I like having my prejudices challenged. So, for instance, in The Sunday Times I read Irwin Stelzer because he is an economist who takes a completely alternative view to the one that I generally favor. So I read Larry Elliott in the Guardian and Irwin Stelzer in the Sunday Times and…it helps me develop my understanding and develop arguments. I think newspapers that provide alternative views are therefore worthwhile. That’s why I’ve worked for The Guardian for 22 years now and why I’m proud to work for The Guardian, is because it very often does publish things with which I disagree and I’m glad that it does. I like The Washington Post, I like The New York Times and although…I think there’s too much in both of those papers, which sort of reinforces [their] editorial viewpoint, but at least their news is fairly unbiased. Fairly unbiased.
I read every [British] paper every day, I have to. It’s a dirty job but someone has to do it. I read Max Hastings in the Daily Mail and…he certainly doesn’t write to my formula. Simon [Jenkins, in The Guardian] writes really against the grain of the normal Guardian columnist and that’s fantastically valuable. People always think of The Guardian as being Polly Toynbee, a writer who I like very much, they think it’s Jonathan Freedland, a writer I like very much. But there’s Simon as well and I think that’s important.
WWD: Which media outlets do you think are translating well online?
R.G.: Well, you look at the [online] audience for The Guardian, it’s fairly substantial. It has a big American audience because it’s a liberal voice that they didn’t have in the U.S. That’s a very good example of the way in which a gap in the market existed because there wasn’t a genuinely liberal voice across the States. You have The Washington Post, it doesn’t have a large audience…outside its own city, The New York Times is a sort of national paper but it charges…and it’s not liberal enough really, I think. I think that the FT is brilliant online; they charge too but they have a fantastically affluent audience and they have an audience who need their material, they need that to make business decisions, so I think that they’ve done brilliantly. The Wall Street Journal is done very well as well. There’s more information out there than has ever been before. I imagine that in 20 years’ time there’ll be more and more outlets who are curating material and archiving material which will be I think, tremendously good for the people across the world. I think you can expect that there will be people who come at that from different political viewpoints and then it’s a matter of deciding who is sensible within those viewpoints to follow. I think we will see eventually, the emergence of great personality journalists who have their own outlets online, who do win followers.
WWD: On media ownership, do you think we’ll continue to see wealthy individuals such as Jeff Bezos, in the case of The Washington Post, and Alexander Lebedev, in the case of The Independent and Evening Standard, rescuing struggling newspapers?
R.G.: I think entrepreneurs who are willing to spend their own money, or their company’s money, in Bezos’ case, who are willing to take risks on keeping print alive and stimulating journalism are always to be appreciated. The previous owner of The Independent, Tony O’Reilly, now facing bankruptcy, poured millions into the Independent and should be praised for it. Lebedev the same, Jeff Bezos the same and, by the way, Rupert Murdoch the same. Rupert Murdoch runs lots of loss-making papers, that’s to his great credit.