London Scrawling: Freedom of the Press

David Tveite digests the UK’s trivial, ubiquitous tabloid culture.

Back in the States, I picked up most of my news through osmosis. If it was on The Daily Show then I probably heard about it, but if you handed me a New York Times, I’d flip straight to the crossword puzzle. This hasn’t ever caused me any real problems—thanks to the ubiquity of the American news media, I’ve never had any trouble staying abreast of current events.

But I’ve found myself cut adrift from the news since arriving in London, particularly when it comes to the happenings back across the pond. This may come as a rude awakening to the ugly American who believes the USA to be at the center of the global consciousness, but it took me a full three days to even find out who won the Super Bowl.

In fact, most of my news over the past few weeks has been what I’ve been able to glean from The London Paper, a free periodical distributed by an army of glum-looking newsies every day when the sun begins to set. It’s just about impossible to catch the tube after 4:00 p.m. without having one of these thrust into your hands.

The London Paper isn’t exactly a tabloid in the traditional sense, although the UK has no shortage of these either (the sheer viciousness of popular rags like The Sun would make even the most brazen Us Weekly editor blush). This daily edition does cover politics, sports, and everything else a respectable publication would, but those sorts of stories can be conspicuously difficult to find within its pages.

You’ll almost never find stories concerning affairs of state on the front page—this space is typically devoted to the sort of stories you might see on Maury. Most recently, the depressing details of the current financial crisis have been bumped to page three or four in favor of the ongoing saga of Alfie Patten, a thirteen-year-old boy who recently became a father.

The British fascination with the cult of celebrity also appears to dwarf any level we’ve approached in the United States. On top of the obligatory style section, entire pages of “news” track the antics of a gaggle of vapid semi-celebrities called “WAGs” (that is, Wives And Girlfriends of famous soccer players). If I am a bit hazy on global affairs of late, the same ignorance does not extend to such pressing concerns as what Victoria Beckham is wearing these days, or where it was that the girlfriend of Chelsea FC midfielder Frank Lampard went out for dinner last Friday. The level of obsession with these banalities wouldn’t be quite so unsettling of these stories weren’t crammed in alongside (far briefer) articles concerning the ailing economy and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

This kind of frivolity seems to taint even the more serious stories. Regardless of actual content, I’ve found that many British editors will regularly disdain conventional “Dog Bites Man” headers for their articles, opting instead for the most offensive pun within easy reach. Political coverage appears to be a bit of a joke as well; if local journalists are to be trusted, London Mayor Boris Johnson’s executive duties have taken a backseat to his full-time job of making off-color remarks and providing ongoing commentary on the same sorts of trivial stories I mentioned before.

In America, the rising prevalence of the 24-hour news networks has seriously dented the print media, and many of us feel a growing frustration with what we perceive as a slavish sort of devotion to high concepts and short attention spans. To those who are nostalgic for a more dignified era of journalism, cheer up—I’m getting the idea that we Americans may be luckier than we think.

David C. Tveite, Esq. is an English and history student at the University of Puget Sound. His coming of age was badly stunted by Hollywood fame when he appeared at age fourteen on the hit CBS series Survivor: The Moon. He still considers himself a celebrity, and it's beginning to make his family and friends sad. He also writes A Regular Dude's World Atlas.