The tabloid press in Britain exerts a worrying influence that goes far beyond its readership and has come to shape many aspects of our culture. This is far from a new issue but has become more pronounced in recent years, due to online competition forcing the press to descend to increasingly downmarket strategies in order to retain readership.
The most damaging influence of the tabloid press is the way that their inaccurate reporting has shaped attitudes to many issues. For example there are incredibly widespread misconceptions about people on benefits and the amount of fraudulent claims. These are created by incessant stories about fraud and supposed abuses of the system, such as a story about one Eastern European woman claiming benefits making the front page of The Sun. A recent poll conducted by the TUC even found that, on average, people think 41 per cent of the entire welfare budget goes on benefits to unemployed people, while the true figure is 3 per cent, whilst 27 per cent of the welfare budget was thought to be claimed fraudulently, when the government's own figure is 0.7 per cent.
Another area of mass misconceptions regards the EU, which has been subjected to a relentless hate campaign by much of the media. This has led to many so-called "Euromyths" being published, a story about supposed EU policies that has little or no basis in fact. Although these are normally swiftly rebutted by the EU, the effect, combined with other almost continually negative coverage, has led to polls which show that a majority of British people would support leaving the EU.
Many of these popular misconceptions come from how many stories have become ridiculously over-sensationalised. Horrific crimes are reported because they are exceptional, not normal. This has led to continual fears of rising crime, when crime levels have generally been decreasing for over a decade. The result of this is to lead to increasingly authoritarian policies, as politicians are reluctant to reject this media narrative.
Tabloids have also had a damaging influence because, in the search for easy stories, they have undermined free speech through their sensationalising of supposedly offensive jokes. There is an almost continual stream of stories about comedian's "offensive" jokes that would otherwise have not have received an audience beyond what there was intended to be initially. Frankie Boyle's Twitter feed, for example, proves a goldmine for Tabloid journalists in pursuit of an easy story and "controversy", despite the fact that that if you do not appreciate his style of humour there is no obligation for you to follow him. The ridiculousness of this was demonstrated by an utterly bizarre Daily Mail story which criticised the "Big Fat Quiz of the Year" for making jokes so offensive, that a selection was printed in full. Although this attempt to create a scandal failed, it has succeeded in the past, with the BBC being notably less adventurous following the controversy created by Jerry Springer the Opera and "Sachsgate". This undermines free speech by making broadcasters reluctant to take risks due to the potential tabloid reaction.
The dumbing down of the BBC is in many ways a consequence of the tabloids. As the political agenda is largely set by the red tops, due to politicians pandering to them, it is difficult for the Corporation to ignore. For example its recent coverage of Britain potentially leaving the EU only fans the flames for Europhobes, despite the fact there is no objective reason why the issues at stake are any different from a year ago. It has also devoted incredible amounts of coverage to the recent emergence of Child Abuse accusations against Jimmy Savile. Although this is a serious case, the extent of the coverage seems excessive as Savile is, after all, dead. The broader aspects of the "scandal", especially those elements damaging to the BBC, have been particularly over-emphasised in the press. Therefore by subscribing to the sensationalized tabloid narrative, which is highly critical of the BBC's role, it is only harming itself.
There are, however, some instances where tabloid attempts at agenda-setting have got nowhere. When the government launched its new e-petitions site last year, the Daily Mail cynically tried to create what ended up being a non-story by claiming the MPs would be forced to debate the re-introduction of Capital Punishment as a result. As an e-petition against it got far more signatures than the one in favour, and neither got near the 100,000 signatures required for a government response, the story was quietly dropped.
What has fuelled this tabloid culture more than anything has been the general unwillingness to confront it, whether from the BBC or politicians. Due to their perceived power and frequent hate campaigns against politicians and the BBC, most people either ignore or fail to challenge their influence. New Labour was utterly subservient to the Murdoch Press, believing that it was responsible for their past defeats. While the Labour Party would seemingly rather buy Tabloid arguments on issues such as benefits than confront them today.
The unwillingness to confront Tabloid Culture means it is likely to stay, but there is some cause for optimism. The results of the Leveson inquiry which heavily criticised the conduct of the press could possibly change things, although it remains to be seen by how much due to Cameron's rejection of statutory regulation of the press. This lingering Tabloid Culture also in many ways does not reflect Britain. As a nation we are generally Liberal and Progressive. However due to the right-wing domination of the press you would be hard pushed to notice this sometimes. Despite this, the growth in the internet has led to massively falling circulations for many newspapers, which is only likely to lead to their influence decreasing in the long term.