The British buy more newspapers than any other people except Swedes and the Japanese. The daily press differs in two obvious ways from that of any similar western European country. First, all over Britain most people read “national” papers, based in London, which altogether sell more copies than all eighty-odd provincial papers combined. Second, there is a striking difference between the five “quality” papers’ and the six mass-circulation popular “tabloids”.
These characteristics are still more salient with the Sunday press. Almost no papers at all are published in Britain on Sundays except “national” ones: six “popular”’ and five “quality” based in London. Three appear on Sundays only; the others are associated with dailies which have the same names but different editors, journalists and layouts. The “quality” Sunday papers devote large sections to literature and the arts. They have colour supplements and are in many ways more like magazines than newspapers. They supply quite different worlds of taste and interest from the “popular” papers.
Scotland has two important “quality” papers, “The Scotsman” in Edinburgh and the “Glasgow Herald”.
The dominance of the national press reflects the weakness of regional identity among the English. The gap in quality is not so much between Labour and Conservative, as between levels of ability to read and appreciate serious news presented seriously. Of the five quality morning papers only “The Daily Telegraph” is solidly Conservative; nearly all its readers are Conservatives. “The Times” and “Financial Times” have a big minority of non-Conservative readers. Of the popular papers only the “Daily Mirror” regularly supports Labour. Plenty of Labour voters read popular papers with Conservative inclinations, but do not change their publican opinion because of what they have read. Some of them are interested only in the human interest stories and in sport, and may well hardly notice the reporting of political and economic affairs.
Except in central London there are very few newspaper kiosks in town streets. This may be because most pavements are too narrow to have room for them. In towns the local evening papers are sold by elderly men and women who stand for many hours, stamping their feet to keep warm. Otherwise, newspapers can be bought in shops or delivered to homes by boys and girls who want to earn money by doing “paper-rounds”.
Most of the newspapers are owned by big companies, some of which have vast interests in other things, ranging from travel agencies to Canadian forests. Some have been dominated by strong individuals. The greatest of the press “barons” have not been British in origin, but have come to Britain from Canada, Australia or Czechoslovakia. The most influential innovator of modern times is partly Indian, and spent his early years in India. He pioneered the introduction of new technology in printing.
Among the “quality” papers the strongly Conservative “Daily Telegraph” sells more than twice as many copies as any of the others. It costs less to buy and its reporting of events is very thorough. The “Financial Times” has a narrower appeal, but is not narrowly restricted to business news. “The Guardian” has an old liberal tradition, and is in general a paper of the Left.
The most famous of all British newspapers is “The Times”. It is not now, and has never been, an organ of the government, and has no link with any party. In 1981 it and “The Sunday Times”’ were taken over by the international press company of the Australian Rupert Murdoch, which also owns two of the most “popular” of the national papers. Its editorial independence is protected by a supervisory body, but in the 1980s it has on the whole been sympathetic to the Conservative government. The published letters to the editor have often been influential, and some lead to, prolonged discussion in further letters. Under the Murdoch regime it has continued a movement away from its old austerity.
The popular newspapers are now commonly called “tabloids”, a word first used for pharmaceutical substances compressed into pills. The tabloid newspapers compress the news, and are printed on small sheets of paper. They use enormous headlines for the leading items of each day, which are one day political, one day to do with crime, one day sport, one day some odd happening. They have their pages of political report and comment, short, often over-simplified but vigorously written and (nowadays) generally responsible. They thrive on sensational stories and excitement.