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Fri 21 Feb 2020 03:27 PM

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UK tabloids: You give news a bad name

In light of calls for a clampdown on tabloids after the death of TV presenter Caroline Flack, is it time the public become more accountable for news it consumes?

UK tabloids: You give news a bad name

Price of fame TV presenter Caroline Flack took her own life. Image: Getty Images

When a new daily national newspaper appeared on newsstands across the UK in 2016 with the promise to offer readers “a positive outlook,” its editor claimed the British public “couldn’t face newspapers anymore because they were too distressing”.

The New Day was launched by Trinity Mirror, the British media conglomerate behind the Daily Mirror, Daily Star and celebrity magazine OK! Its brand of positivity was backed by a $6.5m TV ad campaign and two million free copies on the first day. But in less than just three months, it announced it was closing down. Sales had failed to materialise, so Trinity Mirror cut its losses.

So bad but so good?

It seems that no matter how distressing the British newspapers are, good news just doesn’t sell.

Trinity Mirror could have saved itself millions of pounds if it had just asked Dubai-based daily newspaper 7DAYS for advice.

The now closed tabloid owned by the same publisher behind the Daily Mail newspaper tried a similar experiment when it launched a Good News campaign in 2009. Claire Sharrock, a former BBC producer and one of the founding editors, told me the initiative was in response to feedback from Dubai readers that the newspaper published too much bad news.

“While nothing will change as long as the public’s appetite for junk news remains, bad news is still big business for publishers”

Sharrock says the aim was “to create a platform for readers and companies to share good news stories and we would commit to publishing those kind of stories daily”.

But, like The New Day would find out later, while readers may claim they want more positive, good news, they quickly lose interest when it is offered to them.

“It ran for a while and had a fairly positive response – but those stories were never the ones that garnered much response... Up against strange happenings from Dubai Courts, they just didn’t stand a chance,” Sharrock remembers.

Protecting celebrities

This is all relevant in the midst of the Caroline Flack storm that is currently brewing in the UK. A popular TV personality, she took her own life after it was revealed British prosecutors had decided to push ahead with a domestic abuse claim that she attacked her boyfriend. The subject of much tabloid attention in recent months, the coverage has spurred many on social media and politicians to call for a clampdown on tabloid coverage of celebrities’ lives.

A petition calling for the introduction of ‘Caroline’s Law’ to protect celebrities from tabloid coverage has so far gained around half a million signatures.

I have noticed two trends on my own social media, with one camp calling tabloids bullies and demanding action, while another is calling out the public itself to shoulder the bulk of the responsibility.

The Mental Health Media Charter, which was set up to educate the media in how to cover mental health stories, backed such claims.

“If you want to minimise preventable deaths of public figures in the future, do not buy or click on content from The Sun, The Star or the Daily Mail and make sure you’re not following/engaging with professional trolls like Piers Morgan, Katie Hopkins or Julia Hartley Brewer... their only concern is engagement and that is what we must starve them of to ensure a kinder, fairer media,” the group said on Twitter.

While Dubai’s media environment doesn’t mirror the sometimes dubious approach of the British tabloids, Sharrock agrees with this view: “There is no doubt that some newspapers overstep the boundaries of what is decent, fair and in the public interest… But, to blame only the publishers of the stories for this scenario is an easy get-out for the millions of people who click, read, share and comment on them. If people didn’t read them, newspapers wouldn’t bother with them – the fact is, for better or worse, these kind of stories are popular and that translates to money, particularly when it comes to online publishing.”

Your business is big business

“In a world where you can be anything, be kind,” was one of Caroline Flack’s last social media posts. It has gone viral and many people have endorsed it, but how long will this aspiration last in the fickle world of 24 hour news and social media?

“I wish people were more interested in stories of social injustice or environmental issues… but sadly they often aren’t,” Sharrock says.

While nothing will change as long as the public’s appetite for junk news remains, bad news is still big business for publishers.