Confessions of a Tabloid Journalist

Isobel Cockerell
Isobel Cockerell  /  5 Comments

‘Gutter press, the sidebar of shame, bloody tabloids.’

We say it again and again. But we always come crawling back, re-staining our fingers with their cheap ink, giving them more of our pathetic clicks. We are slaves to the tabloids. Whether its our favourite student red-top rag or the finest Murdoch has to offer, they dominate our day-to-day lives.

There are certain kinds of sanctimonious, genteel, invariably Guardian reading lefties - often of our parents’ generation - who refuse to have the Mail et al in the house. These people are just as misguided as those who slaver over it every morning. They choose to ignore the fact that the Mail and the Sun are the first papers politicians pick up in the morning.  Alistair Campbell used to say to Blair’s cabinet- ‘before you do anything, think what the Daily Mail could make of it in a headline’. Sage advice indeed, for the tabloids wield great, undeniable power - at least in the minds of the political class, which sees them as having a direct line to the electorate. The solution is not to banish the tabloid press from our homes or confine them to our self-blocker lists. The solution is to know our enemy intimately.

And to know our enemy we must understand this: there is a very particular power that comes with writing hatchet jobs for a popular tabloid, student or otherwise (and yes, writing for the Tab is in every sense a micro-version of writing for a national tabloid). It’s addictive. The addiction is twofold: it is all too easy to tear everyone down; and people will take you at your word when you do. It’s like an out of body experience: all at once, in a kind of fever, you become someone with outrageous, unreasonable views. Then you file the article and you are your normal self again.


The definitive Daily Mail front page

In the old days success would be measured in how many green-inked letters in block capitals came flying in. Now the apoplectic comments – that glorious invention of the internet age – are simply proof you got it right. Maybe all tabloid hacks are sociopaths, but seeing people get so irrationally angry about something you have no particular view on one way or the other is kind of a buzz.

Tabloid journalists are often scarily intelligent. Perhaps more surprisingly, they can be fairly liberal and leftie. In their day to day lives they aren’t the monstrous public enemies we suppose them to be, but really rather pleasant and reasonable. But it just so happens they are driven by money or power over morals and principles.

What’s ironic about the Daily Mail in particular is that for a publication with such a deplorable stance on so many things, it is actually exemplary in the way it treats its employees – and here, perhaps, is where its success lies. On the face of it, they are employed on a long term basis – no zero-hour contracts here, no sir. If you are ‘let go’ it is done on the friendliest of terms and – as with former diarist Richard Kay – the likelihood is they’ll keep you on as Editor-at-large, and probably pay you more than they did before. Paul Dacre, editor of the Mail and archrival of the London literati, will often commission several writers to write a thinkpiece, and pick the best one, but pay the other hacks a sizable kill fee.

They even pay their work experience lackeys – and generously – if they can come up with a story. During my week-long stint at the Mail I made £700 in stories. Granted, I traded that money for my soul, but for an 18-year-old about to start their first term at university, paying off half my first term’s fees (pre fee hike) was pretty good going.The Mail‘s self-interested generosity towards its staff contrasts with the often insensitive treatment of its hacks by the heart-bleeding Guardian, which has been known to carry out a cull at Christmas.The result of all this lavish treatment is that the Mail‘s writers have a huge amount of fierce loyalty to their newspaper, to an almost cultish degree. They are being bought into the rhetoric.

The gutter press

Beware of dismissing the tabloids

At its heart, the Mail – and other tabloids – should be treated as what they are: one huge, twisted piece of satire. If you step back, you realise that the tabloids despise all sentient beings capable of growing old or fat. The only living creatures that escape their wrath are the Royals and cuddly, furry animals.  This is quite clearly absurd.

Articles like Nicky Haslam’s ‘Common’ features – which decree, seemingly at random, what is and isn’t considered ‘common’, are sources of great mirth for tabloid hacks. Tabloid journalism is essentially classism at its most potent. Haslam and his cronies must have been screaming with laughter as they decreed that taking wine to parties was ‘irredeemably naff… and never take Champagne. Unless its a case,’ no doubt cackling as they imagined Middle England lugging crates of champagne up the paved drive of their ‘common’ friends’ houses. What larks.

We can’t seem to grasp that tabloid papers are a heavily curated medium. To readers, tabloids are either gospel or outrage. Yet to tabloid journalists, the whole thing is a lucrative and elaborate joke; an abstract concept; almost an art form. Just as at the Cambridge Tab it is hilarious to piss off the drinking socs and the university PR department in the same day, at the Daily Mail it is equally tickling that one could write something that could infuriate the metropolitan elite while middle-class suburbia would take it as gospel. The power is delicious, and integrity the only price.

The tabloids are a force of nature within our political system. Turning a blind eye to them does not make them go away. Read the tabloids every day. Study them with an almost anthropological interest. And next time you find yourself enraged, appalled, shocked, or offended by a hatchet-job, step back and remember that you are being had. Because on behalf of all tabloid journalists, reformed or otherwise, I say this: I’m sorry. Truly I am. But – and this is crucial – it was just too easy.

  • huh

    ‘I did a week’s work experience at one tabloid, so I know all about tabloid journalism.’ Ridiculous.

  • Emily Mead

    how DARE you steal my Rita Skeeter analogy!!! I am ABSOLUTELY DISGUSTED. You wait til I get hold of you- i don’t suppose you stopped to THINK what I went through when I saw it on here!!!

  • Gary

    You’re over intellectualising it. The Daily Mail pumps out sub-par articles on it’s online domain simply for the Ad revenues - maybe that’s why they can pay their staff so well ? The Daily mail website is the UKs most widely shared online export. In terms of the physical paper I get the strong impression that is aimed at an older, whiter and more middle class demographic.

    • Isobel Cockerell

      I should have clarified here - I am primarily talking about the tabloid in paper form - hence references to cuddly animals etc which don’t really feature on the sidebar of shame. The MailOnline is indeed a different entity from the paper itself; they have separate offices, they are not quality-controlled and curated in the same way by Paul Dacre, who goes through the paper in its entirety every evening and tweaks it to his outlook, which is a fairly uniquely fastidious and comprehensive practice among national newspaper editors. The Mail have been rich for quite some time; even before the world-dominating phenomenon that is MailOnline they could afford to pay their writers handsomely.

  • Stepford TAB

    Did you know you can buy a single Twix bar on it’s own you can’t but that would be a really neat idea.