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Scandal! The extended history of the tabloid

The history of tabloid press finds its origins in the chapbooks of the early modern period. Johannes Gutenberg’s 1450 invention of the printing press introduced printing to the Western World, although the first ever movable type printing technology is credited to Bi Sheng, who developed the technology in c. 1041-1048 China. Gutenberg’s western invention remained relatively the unaltered until the Industrial Revolution, when steam power was used to run the press, whereupon the press became a gigantic institution. In the early modern era, however, chapbooks were the main product of early printing. Chapbooks were very popular amongst rural workers and were a medium of entertainment and popular culture, rather like tabloids today. With the Age of Enlightenment came increased readership of chapbooks until the mid-nineteenth century onwards with the mass production of newspapers.

The surge in newspaper printing which accompanied the Industrial Revolution began mostly philanthropically. There were hopes that newspapers could educate the industrial masses on moral and political issues. The War of the Unstamped demonstrates the power that the press could have on national politics. However, with the start of the 20th century came tabloid journalism which has, arguably, since damaged the press’s image as a righteous, honourable and educational institution. The word ‘tabloid’ originates from the words ‘tablet’ and ‘oid’ as they joined to describe medicine sold in tablets. Hence ‘tabloid’ came to denote ‘concentrated, easily assimilable’ information – as is the nature of tabloid papers. The tabloid press today includes The Sun, the Daily Mirror and the Daily Mail, and is often regarded as sensationalist and entertainment-focused, rather than fact-oriented.

The Daily Mail is currently the subject of a change.org campaign orchestrated by Owen Jones, who is calling for an end to the sexualisation of children by the right-wing tabloid paper. He has highlighted their descriptions of a number of well-known teenagers. Heidi Klum’s eight-year-old daughter has been described as a ‘leggy beauty’ in the paper. Actress Elle Fanning has also been described as showing off her ‘womanly curves’ and as being unafraid to ‘flaunt her curves for the camera’. It’s maybe worth pointing out that Elle Fanning was fourteen when this description went to print.

However, as much as certain aspects of tabloid press may be abhorrent, it is in the very nature of tabloids, such as the Daily Mail and The Sun, to be sensationalist. They aren’t a big reading commitment, no Thomas Hardy novel. Tabloids in Britain are just ‘easily assimilable information’, which is often incorrect, repugnant, morally redundant and which provides the fuel for many racist/sexist/homophobic/xenophobic rants by the Katie Hopkins and English Defence Leagues of the British Isles. However, tabloid press’s cheap and entertaining nature has great appeal today and seemingly consistently will do in the future.