Rumour Is Utterly Unfounded

Jenny Diski

  • BuyFamily 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.

It was always about exposing the wayward sexual behaviour of others to the avid public gaze. The naked truth was not the ideal the editors were after so much as the naked – pure and simple. The strategies varied slightly over time, but the papers and their readers were allies. Editors always understood exactly what they were doing, and knew that their core audience understood it too:

The press sought to disguise the tensions imposed by the need to entice readers with sex while defending particular versions of family morality, but intellectual coherence was never a priority, and editors did not hesitate to play on the insecurity, confusion or downright hypocrisy of readers . . . Critics from all kinds of political and social viewpoints highlighted the incongruities and absurdities of this approach, but millions of consumers were prepared to accept or overlook them so long as they could find material that interested them.

There were various ways to get sex on the page. Disapproval, approval or public education: it didn’t matter much which you plumped for as long as you did it in bold exciting headlines: ‘The Mirror Guide to Sexual Knowledge’; ‘WOMEN – The Shocks in the Kinsey Report’; ‘Would You Let Your Daughter Marry a Black Man?’; ‘Has the Bust Had It?’; ‘37 Film Stars Named in Errol Flynn Confession’.

During the First World War, the Daily Mirror campaigned for greater public information and education on sexual matters. It was delighted to carry government health advertisements about venereal disease and to write accompanying articles (‘Ten Plain Facts About VD’). After the Second World War (world wars being good for a loosening of both morals and the constraints on writing luridly about the consequences), the Sunday Pictorial took on the role of public educator and serialised a pamphlet to help parents explain to children how a baby was born: ‘The sperms of men, like those of the four-legged animals, live in a little bag. The father places the sperms in the body of the mother in very much the same way that the animals do.’ Unfortunately, Bingham points out, the Pictorial rather grimed its educational sheen when in 1955 it came up with the front-page headline: ‘Virgin Births – Doctors Now Say – It doesn’t always need a man to make a baby.’ But both the sex education and the sex fantasy sold more papers than their rivals.

Or owners and editors could renounce the educational role and expound on the decline in public morals, which just as effectively kept their audience up to date with the latest sexual goings-on. In the early 1920s, Beaverbrook refused to allow any positive discussion in his papers of Marie Stopes’s campaign to inform women about contraception and sexual technique. The Sunday Express railed against ‘race suicide’: ‘The British Empire and all its traditions will decline and fall if the motherland is faithless to motherhood.’ Still, sex was getting an airing and Bingham explains that the ‘attempt to whip up moral outrage in defence of conservative notions of sexual propriety was an early example of a tactic that would become very familiar in the Sunday Express’.

The Kinsey Reports on sexuality in America were fairy gold to the tabloids, all of which gave acres of newsprint to detailing the infidelities and masturbatory habits of men (in 1948) and women (in 1953). The Mirror worried that the revelations about ‘petting to the limit’ could cause ‘psychological and spiritual harm’ if they were copied by British youth. The Sunday Pictorial offered a homespun version of its own, serialising over seven weeks Dr Eustace Chesser’s survey of The Sexual, Marital and Family Relationships of the Englishwoman.

The popular press crept along just behind increasingly permissive social attitudes. Agony aunts, women journalists posing as sexual and emotional nurses, answered letters from a bemused (or invented) public, and gave readers the chance to wonder at what the world got up to, or to feel they were not, after all, alone. In 1938, the Daily Mirror’s Dorothy Dix told a couple in love, but married to other people, to desist: ‘You have no right to sacrifice your innocent families to your passion . . . There is something more worthwhile having in life than love, and that is the integrity of your own soul, and the knowledge that you had the strength to do your duty.’ By 1963 Marje Proops, the Mirror’s latest agony aunt, declared that nothing in life was more worthwhile than love, and physical love at that. ‘Without it . . . life is arid, boring, wearying, unenticing, uneventful, uninspiring. With it . . . life is rewarding, exciting, moving, amusing, exhilarating and splendid. Those who maintain the myth that sex isn’t everything have my profound pity.’

Divorce cases and crime reports were reliable ways of insinuating sex into the newspapers. The Russell divorce case in 1922 would excite a tabloid editor even today. The court and then the public learned that the marriage was unconsummated, but that Lady Russell had nevertheless given birth to a son and was shown to have had several lovers. The Daily Mirror had a photo of Lord John Russell ‘In Women’s Guise’ after evidence had been heard about his cross-dressing, and the Express (owned by the moralistic Beaverbrook) had a picture of the baby under the headline: ‘Who Is My Daddy?’ It was a feast, all the more so because Russell was the son of a peer, and scrutinising the misbehaviour of toffs gave the gossip an extra shot of self-righteousness. ‘This is what our masters get up to’ has modulated into the present ‘public interest’ defence for showing knickerless celebrities getting into cars.

Moral crusades were the way to sanction sex stories. In the 1920s, white slavery was a delicious danger: sinister aristocrats and foreign traders (often Jews or Indians) repeatedly abducted blonde, blue-eyed women, although no evidence of this was ever produced. In the 1950s the papers focused on street prostitution, and reported on an underworld crawling with tarts and pimps (also largely run by swarthy foreigners), creating panic in their shocked readership, who apparently knew nothing about streets, or what went on in them. The result was the Street Offences Act of 1959, and the whole business went indoors where it was warmer, and so much more convenient for clients that the number of prostitutes rose. In his autobiography, Hugh Cudlipp, editorial director of both the Mirror and the Sunday Pictorial, wrote that for all the exposure of vice after the Second World War, ‘vice is still being exposed in 1976 when the vice is more vicious.’ Then again, if tabloid campaigns to clean up the world in the 1950s had worked, they would have had to wait until Princess Diana came along for something to write about.

Spluttering indirection went into overdrive on the subject of homosexuality, a regular standby for moral outrage throughout the 20th century. Bingham describes Hannen Swaffer’s alarm call in 1924 about ‘abnormality’ in artistic circles: ‘These “strange people” . . . interested in ballet and “attracted by everything written by, or about, the author of The Ballad of Reading Gaol” . . . You cannot, in a newspaper intended for general reading, put it more clearly than that.’ Four years later, James Douglas of the Sunday Express announced that The Well of Loneliness was ‘A Book That Must Be Suppressed’ because ‘its theme is utterly inadmissible in the novel . . . Many things are discussed in scientific textbooks that cannot be decently discussed in a work of fiction offered to the general reader . . . I would rather give a healthy boy or a healthy girl a phial of prussic acid than this novel.’

It was an astonishingly long time before legalisation forced the tabloids to resort to euphemism – not for the moral protection of the family, but to avoid being accused of blatant prejudice. The Wolfenden Report’s proposal in 1957 to decriminalise homosexuality was called a ‘Pansies’ Charter’ by the Sunday Express and even when the law was finally enacted in 1967, the papers continued to describe gay men as predators of the young, until they came up with the separate and more reliable monster of the paedophile, a universal hate figure for our time, and one that no legislation is going to mess up.

Until the mining of royal and celebrity seams was cranked up to industrial levels, the popular family papers had to rely on folk-heroic robbers and friendly neighbourhood gangsters, or the kind of suburban criminal and crime Orwell described just after the war in ‘Decline of the English Murder’:

one can construct what would be, from a News of the World reader’s point of view, the ‘perfect’ murder. The murderer should be a little man of the professional class – a dentist or a solicitor, say – living an intensely respectable life somewhere in the suburbs, and preferably in a semi-detached house, which will allow the neighbours to hear suspicious sounds through the wall. He should be either chairman of the local Conservative Party branch, or a leading Nonconformist and strong Temperance advocate. He should go astray through cherishing a guilty passion for his secretary or the wife of a rival professional man, and should only bring himself to the point of murder after long and terrible wrestles with his conscience. Having decided on murder, he should plan it all with the utmost cunning, and only slip up over some tiny unforeseeable detail. The means chosen should, of course, be poison.

The Brides in the Bath murderer George Smith and John Christie of Rillington Place fitted the bill, while the Kray Brothers became tabloid proto-celebrities even as they were ordering gangland rivals to be shot or hacked to death. But there were limits, and in 1966 the horrors that came out during the Moors murders trial of Myra Hindley and Ian Brady posed a problem for the family newspapers. The evidence was so gruesome that the People stopped covering the trial.

The limits, were, of course, what the family papers call ‘kiddies’ (though the Bulger trial confused them mightily, with both victim and criminals being kiddies). Grown-up victims, particularly women, were fair game, however, and the tabloids told as much as they could legally get away with about the Yorkshire Ripper’s killings of prostitutes when he went on trial in 1981. In 1976, legislation had arrived to ensure the anonymity of rape victims, but the popular press was against it and continued to publish identifying details of the women along with their sexual histories as gleaned under cross-examination. The Sun called the legislation ‘unfair’ and a charter (liberal legislation was always a charter of some sort) for vindictive women.

There was another kind of wronged woman, though, that the tabloids did champion. For family newspapers, any defiler of the myth of the breakfast table was fair game for naming and shaming. It was a feature of the tabloids in the 1950s and early 1960s that Bingham doesn’t mention, but which I remember with dismay. The tabloids presented themselves as a resource that provided money, comfort and retribution for people such as my mother. When my father left her and me in 1958 with no forwarding address or financial support, my mother might have got social security, or a job. In fact what she did when the eviction notice arrived was to call a newspaper – it was either the Sunday Pictorial or the People (I can’t remember which) – with her ‘story’. A woman came round to our flat and asked my mother (and me, as a kiddie) questions about my father (a.k.a. ‘The Rat’). How upset was I, how had we managed to live without any money? And she wrote it all down in a notebook. A man took photographs. I was distressed, but my mother was using a standard resource for wronged wives. She was exhilarated at the idea of getting her own back by publicly disgracing my father, and very hopeful that the paper would solve her money problems. Social security and getting a job were ‘shameful’, but being in the paper as a victim of my father was, apparently, not demeaning at all.

I found this puzzling at the time. I think my mother saw it as a kind of social service the popular family papers provided. Today, it’s mostly footballers and movie stars who get this treatment. In the 1950s it was more democratic. There were pages of public shamings of morally reprehensible individuals. I have a confused recollection of the result, doubtless having done my best to block it out. In my mind’s eye I see a centre-page spread about the vileness of my father who had left his devoted wife and child destitute, a picture of him, and of his bereft family holding an eviction notice, threatened with living on the streets. But I also have a recollection of my mother’s anger and disappointment at being let down in some way by the paper. Either my father’s moral crimes were too ordinary to be of interest to the reading public and they didn’t, after all, publish it (and my ‘memory’ is just what I imagined when the reporter left), or they published but didn’t pay my mother as much as she hoped. I haven’t got the – whatever it would take – to check the archives. These much more professional days, she would have gone to Max Clifford, for proper agenting.

In 1969 the public were deemed ready for Rupert Murdoch’s relaunched Sun, which finally uncovered the nipples of the pin-ups who had always appeared suitably undressed for the times in the popular family papers. It announced ‘We Enjoy Life and We Want You to Enjoy It with Us’: ‘The Sun is on the side of youth. It will never think that what is prim must be proper . . . It believes that the only real crime is to hurt people.’ In a new, undisguised pursuit of their readers’ pleasure, they advised women in a serialisation of The Sensuous Woman to move ‘their pelvis and bottom as if they were loaded with ball-bearings’. Raunchy, harmless fun for a fun generation. But now that nipples, pubic hair, weird sex and celebrity scandal are available everywhere – on TV, in the cinemas, in magazines, on the streets of a Saturday night – the tabloids are having to rely more heavily on their old pumped-up rectitude and championing of family values as their unique selling point.

These days, I read that the Sun is concerned that ‘Fatties Cause Global Warming’ and the Mirror carries the confession of a singer with a ‘squeaky clean’ girl group of the past who is not, as everyone thought, ‘whiter than white’ and tells all about her ‘baby agony and termination at 16’. The Daily Mail informs its readers that ‘Prison officials have launched an investigation into allegations that [a prison teacher] Beverley Horne, 35, had sex sessions with Lester Jackson [a pupil inmate], who is serving a life sentence for beating an accountant to death with a baseball bat.’ And a few months ago the News of the World sent its ‘fake sheik’ to India to test the family values of the father of the nine-year-old girl who co-starred in Slumdog Millionaire. In prose so outraged that it occasionally bursts into upper-case, the paper revealed that

the poverty-stricken father of Slumdog Millionaire child star Rubina Ali plans to become a millionaire himself – by SELLING his nine-year-old daughter. In a bid to escape India’s real-life slums, Rafiq Qureshi put angel-faced darling of the Oscars Rubina up for adoption, demanding millions of rupees worth £200,000. As he offered the shocking deal to the News of the World’s undercover fake sheikh this week, Rafiq declared: ‘I have to consider what’s best for me, my family and Rubina’s future.’ Rafiq tried to blame Hollywood bosses for forcing him to put his daughter up for SALE . . . We travelled to Mumbai to expose the illegal sale after a tip-off from a concerned close family friend and former neighbour . . . Our investigator made contact with Rafiq and said we had heard he was considering having Rubina adopted. He told Rafiq he was acting for a wealthy Arab sheikh who wanted to take the youngster to live with him 2000 miles away in Dubai.

If there’s one thing a popular family newspaper loves to offer its readers, it’s the moral bankruptcy of the very poor.