Tabloid Century

The Popular Press in Britain, 1896 to the present

by Adrian Bingham (Author) Martin Conboy (Author)
©2015 Monographs VIII, 260 Pages
Series: Peter Lang Ltd.


Popular newspapers played a vital role in shaping British politics, society and culture in the twentieth century. This book provides a concise and accessible historical overview of the rise of the tabloid format and examines how the national press reported the major stories of the period, from World Wars and general elections to sex scandals and celebrity gossip. It considers the appeal and influence of the most successful titles, such as the Daily Mail, the Daily Mirror, the Daily Express and the Sun, and explores the emergence of the key elements of the modern popular newspaper, such as editorial campaigns, women’s pages, advice columns, and pin-ups. Using a wealth of examples from across the century, the authors explain how tabloids provided an important forum for the discussion of social identities such as class, gender, sexuality and ethnicity, and how they scrutinised public figures with increasing intensity. In the wake of recent controversies about tabloid practices, this timely book provides the historical context to enable a proper assessment of how the popular press helped to define twentieth-century Britain.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Preface
  • Introduction: The Rise of the Tabloid
  • The cultural roots of the tabloid
  • The emergence of the modern popular daily press
  • The birth of the modern tabloid
  • The tabloid unleashed
  • Chapter 1: War
  • Empire, patriotism and the First World War
  • The dangerous legacies of the Great War
  • ‘Standing alone’: The Second World War
  • Cold War, decolonisation and ‘decline’
  • Iraq, Afghanistan and the ‘war on terror’
  • Chapter 2: Politics
  • Tabloid politics
  • Right-wing dominance 1900–1930s
  • Reform and reconstruction: 1930s–1960s
  • Right rises again: 1970s–1990s
  • Shift to the centre? 1990s–present
  • Chapter 3: Monarchy and Celebrity
  • Duty and distance: The monarchy before the Second World War
  • Society, gossip and the emergence of modern celebrity
  • Growing intrusiveness: Monarchy in mid-century
  • Mid-century celebrity culture
  • The convergence of royalty and celebrity: The pursuit of Diana
  • Caution to the winds: Celebrity coverage in the 1980s and after
  • Chapter 4: Gender and Sexuality
  • The Northcliffe model
  • The sexualisation of the popular press: Problem pages
  • The sexualisation of the popular press: Pin-ups
  • The popular press and homosexuality
  • The popular press and the ‘permissive society’
  • Feminism, post-feminism and the appeal to women
  • Chapter 5: Class
  • Reaching the suburban middle classes
  • Winning over the working classes
  • Rewriting class in an age of affluence
  • The decline of the industrial working class
  • Defending ‘middle England’
  • Chapter 6: Race and Nation
  • Britain ruling the waves
  • War, Empire and the rewriting of patriotism
  • Immigration and the emergence of multi-cultural Britain
  • Keeping Europe at bay?
  • Race and nation in the twenty-first century
  • Conclusion: The Life and Death of the Tabloid Model
  • Notes
  • Introduction: The Rise of the Tabloid
  • Chapter 1: War
  • Chapter 2: Politics
  • Chapter 3: Monarchy and Celebrity
  • Chapter 4: Gender and Sexuality
  • Chapter 5: Class
  • Chapter 6: Race and Nation
  • Conclusion: The Life and Death of the Tabloid Model
  • Index


The popular newspaper was one of the most successful products of the twentieth century. After the launch of the Daily Mail in 1896, the habit of regular newspaper reading gradually spread so that by the early 1950s around 85 per cent of the population saw a paper every day and the market was effectively saturated. The British public consumed more newspapers per head than any other nation, and the leading London titles, such as the Daily Mirror, the Daily Express and the News of the World, achieved some of the biggest circulations in the world. Although readership levels declined in the second half of the century as competition from other media forms, particularly television, intensified, newspapers retained much of their political and cultural power, and they shaped British society in countless ways. They provided millions of people with one of their main windows on the world. This book examines how the popular press represented Britain to its readers, not only narrating major public events such as wars, political campaigns and coronations, but also describing and defining personal and social identities such as gender, sexuality, class and race. This mixture of public and private, serious and trivial, lies at the heart of the tabloid model and helps to explain its popularity and resilience.

There are, of course, plenty of histories of the press, but most of them focus on the production of newspapers – on the owners, editors, reporters and printers who wrote, packaged or paid for the news – rather than on their content. Those that do examine content tend to look at specific journalistic genres, such as war reporting, or limit their focus to particular titles or periods. This book sets out some of the broad patterns of continuity and change in popular newspaper content over the twentieth century in the belief that understanding the political and social impact of the press requires an awareness of this wider context. We hope that it will be of value both to readers interested in the press’s past, and also to those wanting to learn more about the trajectories that have led to the high-profile ← vii | viii → controversies and debates of recent years. Such expansiveness inevitably means much has had to be omitted or passed over quickly. We have generally focused our attention on the market-leading national newspapers, and on dailies more than Sundays. Some important types of content, such as sports reporting or crime news, receive little coverage, and we have not been able to explore national or regional variation in the detail we would have liked. We hope that the payback for such selectivity is a breadth rarely found in other volumes.

This book attempts another difficult balancing act. We have tried to pitch our writing some way between the chatty reminiscences found in many Fleet Street memoirs, and the dense and self-referential writing of much of the academic literature. We have tried to synthesise the scholarly work in a serious but accessible way, adding plenty of colour from the tabloids themselves. For those interested in delving more deeply, we have included references to the best work in the field.

This book has taken longer to write than we had anticipated, and we’d like to thank everyone at Peter Lang, especially Lucy Melville, for her patience. The Departments of History and Journalism Studies at the University of Sheffield have provided pleasant and friendly working environments, and the events hosted by our Centre for the Study of Journalism and History have brought plenty of intellectual stimulation from many scholars working in this area. On a personal note, Adrian would like to thank Felicity, Anna and Thea for all their love, support and smiles, and Martin has benefitted as always from the dynamic patience of Lara and Simone. ← viii | 1 →

Introduction: The Rise of the Tabloid

On 1 January 1901 the readers of the New York World woke up to find that their newspaper had shrunk. Some thought it was a hoax, but it was actually an experiment – and a sign of the future. Joseph Pulitzer, the World’s owner and one of the leading figures in American journalism, had invited Alfred Harmsworth, a thirty-five year-old Anglo-Irish businessman who had made his name in Britain by launching the Daily Mail five years earlier, to take control of his paper on what contemporaries regarded as the first day of the twentieth century. Harmsworth decided to take the opportunity to test his ideas about how journalism could be transformed for the modern age. He reduced the newspaper pages to half their usual broadsheet size, and told reporters to boil down stories to no more than 250 words. The front page declared the paper was ‘The Daily Time-Saver’, providing ‘All the News in Sixty Seconds’. Harmsworth told readers that ‘by my system of condensed or tabloid journalism hundreds of working hours can be saved each year’. The term ‘tabloid’, a contraction of ‘tablet’ and ‘alkaloid’, had been copyrighted by the pharmaceutical company Burroughs Wellcome and Co. in 1884 to advertise compressed medicines in the form of small tablets. It now provided the perfect metaphor for Harmsworth’s paper, conveying the combination of reduced dimensions with speed and power. The World was sold out by 9 in the morning and extra editions were printed as curious readers flocked to see ‘the 20th Century newspaper’. Professional journalists were sceptical, and the experiment would not be soon repeated. The world was not yet ready for the ‘tabloid’, and its punchy, digested journalism, but it was a powerful marker of things to come.1

The tabloid that eventually dominated twentieth-century British journalism would combine many of the innovations of Harmsworth’s World, including its size and emphasis on concise writing, with a number of other populist elements: chatty, vernacular language, a visual style based on bold ← 1 | 2 → black headlines and eye-catching images, and content driven by the insistent pursuit of sensation and scandal. It emerged from an extended process of editorial experimentation and consumer testing over several decades. Harmsworth’s Daily Mail, Britain’s first morning daily newspaper aimed squarely at the mass market, was full of brightly written human-interest stories, but it retained a broadsheet format and a respectably conservative visual appearance. In 1903, Harmsworth tried something different, launching the Daily Mirror in the half-broadsheet size, and using more illustration, but its conventional language and tone marked it out as a publication aimed at a (lower) middle-class readership. It was not until the Mirror underwent an editorial reinvention in the mid-1930s, drawing inspiration from the brash, populist approach of American city papers such as the New York Illustrated Daily News, that it adopted a recognisably tabloid style. For all its subsequent popularity – the Mirror’s circulation steadily rose and it became Britain’s best-selling paper in 1949 – its main rivals, the Express, the Mail and the Herald, all stuck to their broadsheet format. It was only with the introduction of an even more brazenly sensational title, Rupert Murdoch’s Sun, in 1969, that a wave of tabloidisation occurred. By the end of the 1970s, the popular market had fully converted to the tabloid model. Indeed, so appealing was the new format that by 2004, the most stolidly traditional paper of all, The Times, had adopted it, even if it preferred to describe itself as a ‘compact’ to underline its stylistic distance from the tabloid ‘red-tops’.

This book explores how the tabloids reported the century that they dominated. We employ a broad definition of the term ‘tabloid’ to include all the papers that embraced the populism, accessibility and brevity of Harmsworth’s World, whatever the size of their pages or their typographical style. Before examining the tabloids’ content, though, we offer a brief overview of the editorial strategies, commercial pressures and audience expectations that did so much to shape it. This Introduction starts by outlining the deep cultural roots of the tabloids, before turning to the three waves of editorial innovation – at the turn of the twentieth century, and then during the 1930s and the 1970s – that led to the triumph of the tabloid model. ← 2 | 3 →

The cultural roots of the tabloid

The popular dynamic which is at the heart of tabloid journalism preceded the emergence of tabloid newspapers or even popular mass newspapers. With the development of printing in Western Europe from the fifteenth century, a range of newssheets and political pamphlets was targeted at the landowning and commercial classes. The market for these relatively expensive offerings was limited, however, and printers seeking to make money turned to chapbooks and printed ballad broadsheets which were distributed on a wider scale. Cuckolds, scolding wives, terrifying monsters, freaks of nature, saints and kings, great heroes in battle, villains, murderers and moral exemplars were all common fare. These characters took their place within narrative structures which provided a great deal of continuity with the established patterns of popular culture. Printed ballads, in particular, could generate profit for both printer and hawker by combining entertainment with a commentary on topical events. They have been described as ‘a kind of musical journalism, the forerunner of the modern prose newspapers, and a continuation of the folk tradition of minstrelsy’.2

Early popular printed materials, like the modern tabloid, sought to make themselves accessible and, where possible, visually appealing. At a time when literacy rates were low, they were designed to be sung or read out loud to groups of listeners. Throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, there was a great deal of continuity between popular printed material and the characteristics of the spoken language of the ordinary people. Cheap woodcut illustrations were often included to attract those with limited or no reading ability. These ephemeral printed ballads and almanacs, sold on the streets and at markets, provided a carefully reworked version of everyday life. They claimed the allegiance of the people commercially and even politically.3

Until the early nineteenth century, regular periodical print publications, such as newspapers and magazines, were largely restricted to the wealthier classes, not least because their price was inflated by the various duties and taxes imposed by a state fearful of the circulation of popular ← 3 | 4 → literature. These included a stamp duty imposed on every page, thereby encouraging the production of densely packed broadsheets, as well as advertising and paper duties. The poor had to make do with more ephemeral literature. It was only in the Napoleonic period that weekly newspapers targeted readers outside the traditional circles of political and commercial elites, as publishers and editors such as Thomas Wooler, William Cobbett and Richard Carlile engaged in a critique of political corruption and the plight of the rural poor. They constituted highly successful attempts at addressing the common people, representing them and their concerns in a direct vernacular aimed at constructing a tangible, effective and radical political community. These papers, cheap, popular and politically radical, were swept away by the passing of the draconian Six Acts in 1819 but they left their mark in the fabric of the popular periodicals which followed. William Benbow, who had been an agent for Cobbett, set up the Rambler’s Magazine in 1822, which published material in the French libertine tradition, illustrating the sexual depravity of the aristocracy and clergy. John Cleave’s Weekly Police Gazette from 1834 was a short-lived but influential indication of how the sensationalism of the courts could provide scandal and entertainment for working-class readers. Both sexual and criminal sensationalism could stake claims for radical intent in that they exposed the wrongdoings and corruption of the establishment.

The radical tradition, which reemerged in the 1830s, found that its clear political goals were often compromised by the desire for the sensational which had become established within the popular press. The radical publisher Henry Hetherington introduced a periodical broadsheet entitled Twopenny Dispatch which provided a diet of ‘Fun and frolic’, ‘Police intelligence’, ‘Murders, Rapes, Suicides, Burnings, Maimings, Theatricals, Races, Pugilism’ – in effect, everything which tickled the popular public’s fancy. But the more seriously committed, class-oriented newspaper had not disappeared from the streets. The Chartist Northern Star was published successfully between 1837 and 1852 with a circulation rising to half a million. Identifiably a newspaper rather than a political pamphlet, it helped to focus and sustain the Chartist community by providing information about the movement, fund-raising and supporting petitions to Parliament. Using a didactic rhetoric which claimed to speak on behalf of the working-class ← 4 | 5 → readership and assist in the improvement of their lot, it drew upon and extended the political traditions of the open-air political meeting.4


VIII, 260
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2015 (March)
Newspaper Daily Mirror Press British culture Daily Mail
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien, 2015. VIII, 260 pp.

Biographical notes

Adrian Bingham (Author) Martin Conboy (Author)

Adrian Bingham is Reader in Modern History at the University of Sheffield. He studied for his D.Phil at the University of Oxford, and held a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellowship at the Institute of Historical Research in London, before moving to the Department of History at Sheffield in 2006. Martin Conboy is Professor of Journalism History at the University of Sheffield. He studied for his PhD at the Institute of Education, University of London. He lectured in the Institute for English and American Studies at the University of Potsdam, Germany for five years before moving back to Britain to develop critical linguistic and historical approaches to journalism studies. He joined the Department of Journalism Studies at Sheffield in 2005.


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268 pages