It will not come as a surprise to hear that the front page of The Sun bears a gigantic image of a half-naked woman. She pouts towards the viewer, with one hand playing with her streams of blonde hair and the other toying with the string of fabric that sits between her ample breasts. Something distinguishes this particular bombshell. She is dead.
In an unsurprising yet nonetheless gruesome move the U.K’s bestselling newspaper has decided to illustrate its coverage of the slaying of Reeva Steenkamp at the hands of her boyfriend, Olympic athlete Oscar Pistorius, with a huge photo of the woman in a bikini. I was already growing tired of articles that simply referred to her as “his model girlfriend”. True, the status of the killer is the reason for the death to be newsworthy but you’d think the victim deserved to be named. These dubious moral standards, though, seem almost saintly in comparison with The Sun’s leering, near-necrophiliac exploitation of her body.
This depraved opportunism sits within a long tradition of Sun front pages. The most notorious are, of course, the sneer of “GOTCHA” with which it announced the sinking of the Belgrano and the deaths of hundreds of young Argentines, and the headline of “THE TRUTH” beneath which it announced a pack of lies about Hillsborough. Last year’s entry into its abhorrent annals was a gigantic photo of the mutilated corpse of Gaddafi, above which a headline roared “THAT’S FOR LOCKERBIE”. Grotesque as it is to be so celebratory over anyone’s mutilated carcass, the fact that we still have no good idea of who was behind the 1998 bombing made this especially toxic.
One can fret too much about the tabloids. The fact is that while papers like The Times and The Guardian sell fewer copies they are read by people who are far more influential. Broadsheet readerships tend to be smaller but more select and, thus, the mistruths and illusions they promote are more dangerous. It is nonetheless disturbing to observe the gallons of sewage with which the tabloids flood the middle and lower classes.
One almost forgets that their supposed reason for existence is to provide news. Their raison d’etre is blind fear and futile resentment: exploiting rather than informing popular concerns and giving readers the impression of abject powerlessness. The Sun, then, promoted frightening yet fictitious stories of terrorist plots such as “Al-Qaeda…fitting women suicide bombers with fake breasts that explode” and screamed “TRAITORS” when MPs failed to back the domineering measures held to be essential in coping with the exaggerated threat. Such is their disdain for the truth and their readership that even the buxom lasses on the third page are organs of propaganda. In 2004, Zoe, 22, from London, expressed the opinion that “the world is better off without Saddam”. Thanks.
The soullessness extends beyond political reportage. The Daily Mail, for example, and its online empire, is noted for its exploitation of celebrities. The replacement of coverage of influential people with that of famous individuals is depressing for its vacuity but its obtrusiveness and prurience is also grim due to the callous attitude that The Sun’s front page reflects. So invasive is its portrayal of the stars that it has published 975 articles, all of them crammed with photos, devoted to the six-year-old child of Tom Cruise. This is nothing, though, compared to their plans for the unborn spawn of actress Evan Rachel Wood. This week, to her disgust, they published shots of her ultrasound scan.
I have observed the grim irony that the media institutions which pretend to represent social conservatism are themselves lewd, disrespectful and uncaring. They not only embody these features, though, but are among their foremost promoters in our society. Hugh Trevor-Roper, who had cause to detest Rupert Murdoch after he intimidated his employees into publishing the Hitler Diaries, speculated that the brash Australian loathed England and was on a mission to “moronise and americanise the population”. Even if this was not his intention it is, in large part, his achievement.
It is not enough to regret that our newspapers are a Ballardian mishmash of prurience and paranoia. The rot goes deeper. Our television schedules are filled with the vapid exploitativeness of reality programmes the tabloids have tirelessly promoted. Our performers expose and embarrass themselves for the publicity they offer. Our politicians speak in crude soundbites tailored for their headlines. They have bred culture that exists not to enlighten but to degrade: coarsening tongues, dulling minds and hardening hearts. It may be their more sophisticated and pretentious cousins that have helped to formulate the grand ideas that have thrown our society off a reasonable path but it is they that work to ensure that citizens are leering, sneering and often stupefied observers.