The Art of Bad Taste: The British Tabloid

12 million people everyday read The Sun newspaper in Britain. Infamous for it's page three topless models, its obsession with the private lives of the rich and famous, and its innovative way with the English language, Britain's most popular newspaper is just one of many tabloid titles that you can find at the newsagent's. But why are tabloids so popular in Britain?

Newspapers have existed in Britain since 1621. But for over 300 years they were written and read by only a tiny minority of the (mostly male) elite. When, in 1896, a new newspaper was produced in large numbers and at such low prices that ordinary people could buy it on every street corner, it was an instant success. The Daily Mail, which is still running today, was the mother of the modern tabloid, and the beginning of a whole new sub-culture in the British Press. Today more than twice as many tabloids are sold then the so-called "quality press" titles such as The Times, or The Guardian.

Originally, the word tabloid referred to the size and format. Tabloid papers were smaller and handier than normal newspapers, known as broadsheets. But today, for most people, the word tabloid has nothing to do with shape and size. What makes a tabloid a tabloid is content, and above all, style.

Like Coca-cola, the ingredients of a tabloid follow a special formula: they report the news, sure, but only certain kinds. You won't find anything on changes in the stock market, but you can be sure to read if the prime minister's wife has a toy-boy. Scandals, murders and disasters all get full coverage, but the boring details of political and economic life just don't appear.


Apart from "news", there is sport, which is always reported very much from the British point of view. And there are a lot of pictures of half-naked topless sex-bombs. One tabloid, The Sun, has everyday on page 3 a new beauty showing off her best assets to the world. In fact, British show business is full of former "page 3 girls" working as presenters in TV and elsewhere.

Tabloids dedicate most of their pages to stories about celebrities. This means photographing famous people in embarrassing situations, gossiping about their private lives and generally making them look stupid. Of course, the Royal Family are the ones who get the most attention, but anyone who is even slightly famous is a good enough target. A recent tabloid story, for example, tells how British tennis player Tim Henman is trying, without success, to change his boring image and become a sex symbol. He even did a strip tease on television during Wimbledon to try and impress the world. The article shows a photograph of the sadly unattractive tennis player next to a photo of the evidently gorgeous David Beckham. The headline reads: "SORRY TIM, BUT YOU'RE NO BECKS!" The tabloids need the celebrities, but the celebrities also need the tabloids.

And then, most important of all, there is the interactive element. In the "democratic" tabloids even members of the public can take part in a little "journalistic research". In The Sun, for example, a group of women recently went out for a night on the town, in order to research a town in England that has the reputation of being "the best place in the country to pull". Their "in-depth report" told how in one bar "the fellas were fine to chat to but not much to look at". The next bar was "full of ugly old men" say the amateur reporters. Finally, after several drinks and a lot of dancing on tables they were happy to report to Britain that the town had lived up to its name.


Though they have millions of devoted readers, tabloids are also widely criticised in Britain. They are accused of being sensationalist, hypocritical, prejudiced, in bad taste, and of having no ethical standards in their reporting methods.

And it's enough to take a quick glance through a tabloid to see that they are wildly sensationalist. Below the headline "BOMB HITS HOLIDAYING BRITS", for example, if you read on you will find that actually no one was killed.

The hypocrisy is amazing. The Daily Express recently ran an article criticising the state of teenage sexual morals. "In a world where sex is everything," the article complained, "how can we expect our teenagers to say no?" Well, fair enough, until you discover that the owner of The Daily Express is also the owner of a pornography-publishing house.

A bit of a giggle

Anyone can send a story, or a photo, to the tabloids as long as it makes us laugh. A good example is a recent article about an Englishman who was so disgusted with England that he decided to leave the country. Why? Because the local council had ordered him to lower his garden fence.

But the content is only half the story. The real key to the tabloid newspaper is the style. Tabloids are written in a particular, very colloquial, language. They make no attempt to sound educated or refined, and they love slang, rude rhymes and puns. The recent story of two American women who were so overweight that they were each forced to pay for two aeroplane seats, for example, was accompanied by the headline, "FLYING FATTIES FORCED TO PAY AT LAST!"

Hounded by the press

Their "research" methods are totally unethical. They will tap people's phones, follow them on holiday, and even break into their houses in order to get a story. In the tabloids' opinion the public has a right to know about everything and anything, but celebrities have no rights to privacy at all. As a consequence, many people believe that it was the tabloids, and the paparazzi, which caused the tragic death of Princess Diana.

So why on earth does Britain, which has access to the best press agencies and the highest journalistic standards, consume these terrible tabloids like chocolate? Maybe it is because we have enough news on the television, the radio and in the quality newspapers. Tabloids are not actually about news at all: tabloids are just about gossip. And we all know that when it comes to gossip, what matters is not what is true or what is kind, but what is entertaining and what is funny. The more in bad taste a story is the funnier it seems. And bad taste is what the British tabloids have made into an art.

Hilary Davies