THE recent furore over this front page in Britain’s biggest-selling newspaper, the tabloid Sun, got me thinking even harder than usual about the PhD dissertation I am writing.
The thrust of the criticism is that it was inappropriate for The Sun to publish a large, near-naked image of a glamorous young woman who had been shot dead.
She was Reeva Steenkamp, the girlfriend of South African Paralympic star Oscar Pistorius – dubbed Blade Runner – who is charged with her murder.
Former Sun journalist Marina Hyde, now an astutely prolific columnist for upmarket newspapers, was particularly scathing; the heading over one of her pieces chided with appropriately tabloidesque succinctness: “Reeva Steenkamp’s corpse was in the morgue, her body was on The Sun’s front page”.
When, earlier, I examined the front page that later had so many rhino-tough commentators outraged on behalf of Ms Steenkamp’s apparently disrespected shade, I did not recoil in horror.
Rather, I silently noted that it expertly characterised the tabloid form of which The Sun is the world’s acme; I did, however, muse inwardly that a little more colouring might have projected the mood of the drama with more empathetic accuracy: perhaps a black border pierced by white type at the top and bottom of the page – but these were nice points of interest to only the most geeky of sub-editors (that’d be me, then).
This was a Valentine’s Day story about sex, death, celebrity and, possibly, crime; if The Sun’s front page had carried less impact than it did, it would not have been doing its job.
And what job is that exactly? For anyone in any doubt, The Sun’s mission statement is emblazoned on the wall of its newsroom: “Shock and amaze on every page”.
The whole point of tabloid journalism is that it puts two fingers up at the establishment and its sensibilities (even those of the delicate John Prescott). It challenges authority and subverts boundaries. It is discomforting, objectionable, and the epitome of the “noisy and raucous” press that a senior lawyer told the recent Leveson inquiry Britain should not lose.
Raucousness, the Oxford English Dictionary tells us, is “unpleasant”.
To consider this front page as typifying the carefully commercial calculation of a megalomaniac media magnate and his satanic editor is to misunderstand the emotional drive of tabloid newspapers and their psychosocial function.
They manifest humanity’s amoral, unpredictable, iconoclastic and often obscene psychological predisposition to stick a cultural oar in the structures and patterns that think they know best: that try to make our meaning for us.
Telling The Sun to be respectful would have been like telling Johnny Rotten not to gob on stage, Picasso to smarten up those five tarts from Avignon or Stravinsky to make Rite of Spring a bit more sing-along.
Does it upset people? Yes. Is it morally dubious? Probably. But that’s the point.
I worked as a journalist for The Sun and its defunct sister newspaper the News of the World for three decades. I still freelance for the former.
My PhD argues, from a psychodynamic perspective, that tabloid journalism is A Good Thing. “You sure about that?” I am often asked. Well, I’ve had another think and the answer is still Yes.
Image (for review purpose only) from The Sun