Tabloid gossip frenzy feeds broadsheet recycling industry


High-minded critiques of tabloid excess give broadsheet readers their vicarious thrills

TABLOIDS ARE for idiots. Aren’t they? Just look at the Daily Mail’s website. Media commentators have for some years been enjoying the apparent clash between that newspaper’s hyper-conservative editorial line and the flashy cellulite-circling decadence of its hugely popular online incarnation.

In print Peter Hitchens fulminates about the wretchedness of popular culture and the triviality of modern discourse. On the internet the paper runs endless photographs of models in snug bikinis and of pop stars emerging from rehab.

This week the stupid tabloids are focusing all their attention on the looming divorce of Tom Cruise, pocket Scientologist, and the giant actor Katie Holmes. Extracting one phrase from an interview conducted some weeks ago – “I’m coming into my own” – the Daily Mail concludes that Holmes had long planned her escape. The Sun (along with other papers) confidently claims Cruise had insisted that Suri, the couple’s daughter, be sent to a Scientologist boot camp. The Daily Mirror quotes one of those mysterious “insiders” as arguing that Katie will do “whatever it takes” to win sole custody.

Haven’t these halfwits got anything better to do with their time? Just consider what civilisation has done for us. We have the novels of Marcel Proust, the films of Ingmar Bergman and the challenging, discordant chamber music of Karlheinz Stockhausen. Do the readers of tabloids care? Do they hell? They’re all too busy making ill-informed judgments about Tom Cruise’s interest in crackpot quasi-religions. They’re crawling over throwaway quotes in the hope of confirming preconceived notions about Ms Holmes’s status as a victim. Cretins! Thank goodness for sober news sources such as The Irish Times.

Do you see what I’ve done there? For many years broadsheet newspapers – though not this one, of course – have contrived to report celebrity stories by reporting the other, supposedly less high-minded reporters. “Media frenzy surrounds arrest of Spanky McPopstar in public lavatory,” is a sample headline that I have just made up. By climbing upon the nearest, highest horse and adopting a tone of lofty disdain, I have (not for the first time this week) managed to detail much of the breaking Tomkat news without appearing to express any inappropriate interest.

The Guardian has long employed a slippery gambit whereby it deals with royal stories by commenting on the hysteria surrounding the latest wedding, break-up or jubilee. The copy may be loaded with disapproval but the paper still manages to include photographs of all the best hats, cheeriest dresses and most dramatically nonexistent chins.

This sort of trickery has been going on for quite a while. When Queen Elizabeth married Prince Philip, a member of the Greek royal family, the Daily Worker, then organ of the UK Communist Party, contrived to run a front-page story on atrocities carried out by the Greek government. They still managed to get a photo of the happy couple above the fold.

There are, of course, sensible folk who harbour no interest whatsoever in the state of Mr Cruise’s marriage. Many of them are even sincere when they claim they are not quite sure who this Katie Holmes might be. (She emerged through the television series Dawson’s Creek and appeared in Batman Begins, since you ask). But let’s be honest. Most of us, while queuing with our copy of New Scientist or the New Yorker will scan the tabloid headlines for developments on the story.

A large part of this stems from good old-fashioned Schadenfreude. It hardly seems fair that, blessed with money, fame and good looks, such stars should also be allowed to enjoy happy marriages.

Creepily unchanged since his emergence 30 years ago, Mr Cruise, who celebrated his 50th birthday last week, seems to have supped at some font of eternal youth. In ancient myth, such deals usually come at significant cost. It is unlikely that he will have to hand his first-born to Rumpelstiltskin (do I have that right?) but it is not out of the question that Ms Holmes may, indeed, gain custody of Cruise’s only biological child.

There is, however, something particularly disturbing about this celebrity liaison. When, say, Rachel Weisz left Darren Aronofsky for Daniel Craig there was no great surge of glee in the media. Obviously Ms Weisz is less famous than Mr Cruise but the principal reason for the discrepancy springs from a suspicion that the Tomkat liaison always seemed somewhat, well, supernatural. They may (please note, m’lud) have been very much in love, but – all that sofa jumping on Oprah – they behaved a little like actors in a soap opera by David Lynch.

Now, what I think really happened is. . . Oh, for goodness sake, I have no idea what really happened. Nobody outside the inner circle has any notion. We are all just gorging on tabloid gossip. We are all just gorging on recycled broadsheet gossip. It isn’t half fun though. Right?

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