Rumour Is Utterly Unfounded

Jenny Diski

  • Family Newspapers?: Sex, Private Life and the British Popular Press 1918-78 by Adrian Bingham
    Oxford, 298 pp, £55.00, February 2009, ISBN 978 0 19 927958 6

It was on Good Friday 1930 that listeners who tuned in to the BBC for the 6.30 evening news bulletin heard: ‘There is no news tonight.’ Piano music filled the hiatus before the next programme. In the same year the BBC’s Variety Programmes and Policy Guide for Writers and Producers stated:

Programmes must at all costs be kept free of crudities. There can be no compromise with doubtful material. It must be cut. There is an absolute ban upon the following: jokes about lavatories, effeminacy in men, immorality of any kind, suggestive references to honeymooning couples, chambermaids, fig leaves, ladies’ underwear (e.g. winter drawers on), animal habits (e.g. rabbits), lodgers, commercial travellers. When in doubt – cut it out.

This roughly describes the ideal content of the popular family newspaper from 1918 to the present day. In 1963, the Profumo scandal offered scope for reporting all or most of the prohibited subjects (allowing for the odd change in terminology), including, if I remember rightly, something about animals – dogs, I think, not rabbits. Yet very few of the grubby details were revealed (except by Private Eye) until Profumo himself admitted lying to the House and resigned from the cabinet. Even when the fuller story came out with all its gothic ramifications, it was quite hard to make out exactly what was going on. Yes, men in masks, and dogs, and swimming-pool cavortings at Cliveden, but which men, and what exactly was everyone doing in the pool? You couldn’t be sure, you could only surmise. But then surmising is the bedrock of the bawdy music-hall humour that the upper-middle-class mandarins at the BBC were trying to proscribe in the 1930s, and which the popular press has always claimed as its justification – providing traditional entertainment for the working classes, just like Chaucer and Shakespeare.

In late June 1963, the front page of the Daily Mirror had a banner headline: ‘Prince Philip and the Profumo Scandal – Rumour Is Utterly Unfounded’. Excited readers scanned the story in vain for what the rumour might be. The Prince Philip ‘allegation’ was a perfect example of the knife-edged skill the press developed over many decades of offering up everything and nothing to the gleeful but detail-starved public imagination. The imprecise nature of scandal reporting provided the most fun for readers at their breakfast tables, the haven around which tabloid editors and owners expected their products to be read.

What Adrian Bingham’s Family Newspapers? shows clearly, if a little solemnly, is that the popular press has always tried to suck readers in with banner headline titillation, inside-page innuendo, and pictures of women as déshabillée as the times would allow: to publish whatever they could get away with in whatever way they could get away with it. The constraints on editors were not only legal, but also, and primarily, what was deemed acceptable, by a curiously cross-class but nevertheless exclusively male, authoritarian and sentimental consensus, for ‘the family’ to set eyes on.

The Mirror was just another commodity battling for circulation in a limited market with the other ‘family newspapers’, as the Mail, the Express, the Daily Herald, the Sunday Pictorial, the News of the World and the People described themselves. Like the BBC, the middle and upper-class broadsheets absented themselves from the popularity race, but the other papers were in it for profit. That meant not just wealth, but the political influence that a huge readership among the voting public brought to their owners, such as the Lords Beaverbrook, Northcliffe and Rothermere.

The idea of ‘popular family newspapers’ set a moral puzzle for editors and newspaper barons who had to reconcile the separate and shifting social meanings of ‘popular’ and ‘family’. They were not bound by the BBC charter to inform and educate. The ‘popular’ newspaper needed to capture a mass working-class readership with whatever could be relied on to entertain and grab their attention, which was sex, gossip and juicy crime. But equally, the ‘family’ newspaper had to ensure that the sexual and social scandals which brought in readers were rendered fit for society’s notion of what the family could and should know – whatever that currently was. The family, of course, meant women and children. After breakfast the men could take the insinuation to work and elaborate it, the women could pretend ignorance and then discuss it with their neighbours over the garden fence, and both, in their role of parents, could be confident that the children understood nothing. It’s clear that popular newspapers were performing just the same desperate balancing act of titillation-with-respectability in their search for readers and advertisers in 1918 as they are today. ‘All the news that’s fit to print’ was the logo of the New York Times in 1896, and over the decades it applied to British tabloids too. Some of the most appealing material (if not the news) wasn’t suitable for the innocents around the breakfast table – the task of the tabloids was to try as hard as possible to make all the news that was not fit to print available to the knowing by means of suggestion and obfuscation.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in