Highlighted Selections from:

Guardians of the Public Sphere? Political Scandal and the Press, 1979-97


DOI: 10.1093/tcbh/hwr069

See, H. “Guardians of the Public Sphere? Political Scandal and the Press, 1979-97.” Twentieth Century British History 24.1 (2013): 110–137. Web.

p.110: The political scandals that beset the Conservative Party during the 1980s and 1990s constitute a valuable lens for examining two interrelated areas of study: the changing power relationship between government and press, and the changing interface between public and private in contemporary discourse. Close discursive analysis of the press coverage of these scandals—and of the libel actions that resulted from them—highlights the extent to which the Thatcher administration and the tabloid press propagated a shared moral discourse, founded on the repudiation of ‘permissiveness’, and a return to the ideal of the patriarchal nuclear family. This alliance transformed the way in which the Conservative message was communicated, disseminated, and indeed constituted, yet ultimately proved to be a double-edged sword. By catalysing the disintegration of the boundary between public and private in political life, and investing the press with the power to mould and configure public expectations of sexual morality, Thatcher laid the groundwork for the eventual fall of the Major administration, in the wake of a long series of financial and sexual scandals. As such, this article offers insights into a hitherto unexamined aspect of Thatcher’s legacy, and the unprecedented influence of the press in late twentieth-century politics. -- Highlighted mar 23, 2014

p.111: The scandals studied here in depth for the first time offer a lens through which to examine the constitution of contemporary discourses on morality and sexuality, but also changes in the power relationship between the government and the press. It is the object of this article to demonstrate that these two fields of study are fundamentally linked. -- Highlighted mar 23, 2014

p.111: The popular press have made news out of the private lives of public figures since the Northcliffe revolution and before, and our fascination with them seems bound up in Foucault’s observation that Western societies from the nineteenth century onwards have increasingly associated sexuality with the discovery of truth: ‘For us, it is in the confession that truth and sex are joined, through the obligatory and exhaustive expression of an individual secret.’ -- Highlighted mar 23, 2014

p.115: This was not the first time that the ethics of tabloid methodology had been conflated with the innocence of an MP still yet to be tried; Jeffrey Archer’s counsel in his action against the Daily Star focused more heavily on the paper’s unethical conduct towards the prostitute and key witness Monica Coghlan, than on the truth of the allegation, which was the central legal issue in determining the outcome of the case. -- Highlighted mar 23, 2014

p.116: Writing in the Independent, Roy Greenslade argued that, ‘There are two distinct presses, as unalike as if they served different planets’, and proceeded to contrast the ‘diseased’ ethics of the tabloid press with the broadsheets, which ‘continue to demonstrate the traditional virtues of the Fourth Estate’. -- Highlighted mar 23, 2014

p.116: The conclusion of this torrent of anti-tabloid invective was the widespread consensus among broadsheet editors that privacy legislation was necessary—firstly, to curb the excesses of the tabloids, but more importantly, to protect the ‘serious’ investigative journalism perpetrated by broadsheets from the kind of conflation on the part of politicians outlined above -- Highlighted mar 23, 2014

p.117: The Morton controversy revealed a deeply symbiotic relationship between the press and royalty, which political accounts of declining press standards had preferred to gloss over, and, as Bingham notes, ‘drew attention to the way public figures sometimes conspired to invade their own privacy’. -- Highlighted mar 23, 2014

p.119: Since the launch of the Daily Mail in 1896 by Alfred Harmsworth, later Lord Northcliffe, the popular press was recognized as postulating a very different model of political engagement to that of the traditional ‘fourth estate’. It bolstered an individualistic, consumerist political culture which, as Rhoufari aptly suggests, could be seen as structured by an opposition to all non-economically determined hierarchies. Consumerism is, by its very nature, democratic, and as such the consuming public provided a very different model for democracy to the traditional conception of the public sphere. -- Highlighted mar 23, 2014

p.120: In this light, many of the attributes of the popular press reviled by Thatcher’s colleagues for degrading the lofty functions of the Fourth Estate—sensationalism, personalization, even sexualization—could be seen as part of a broader political project. Recent contributions in the field of media and cultural studies have demonstrated that it is through personalization that many of the traditional aims of the public sphere can be realized; human interest stories and a focus on the private lives of public figures can enfranchise alienated sectors of the population, and act as a stimulus to greater politicization. -- Highlighted mar 23, 2014

p.120: In this respect, tabloid journalism can be ‘knowledge-enabling’, and actually constitutive of the political community, rather than catering to an already-defined group. -- Highlighted mar 23, 2014

p.123: This attempt to link the Left with the promotion of permissiveness in general, and of homosexuality in particular, formed part of a deliberate national strategy. At the 1987 general election campaign, one official Conservative poster featured three books entitled, Young, Gay and Proud, Black Lesbian in White America, and Playbook for Children About Sex, and read, ‘Labour’s idea of a good education for your children’. At the 1987 Party Conference, Thatcher lamented that,

Children who need to be able to count and multiply are learning anti-racist mathematics . . .who need to be able to express themselves in clear English are being taught political slogans. Children who need to be taught to respect traditional values are being taught that they have an inalienable right to be gay.

-- Highlighted mar 23, 2014

p.123: The role played by the tabloid press in the construction and dissemination of the notion of the ‘loony left’ was central. -- Highlighted mar 23, 2014

p.123: During the mid-1980s it was reported that some local authorities had banned the nursery rhyme ‘Baa Baa Black Sheep’ and black dustbin liners as racist, and the Sun was still officially endorsing the Conservatives at the 1994 local elections against Labour councils who ‘hand out YOUR cash to barmy politically correct causes like lesbian and gay clubs’. -- Highlighted mar 23, 2014

p.124: Most importantly, both discourses conflated these two elements through representational strategies which sought to demonstrate how homosexuality and feminism posed a direct threat to family values, and posited family breakdown as their direct effect. -- Highlighted mar 23, 2014

p.127: Crucially, however, MPs were complicit in the development of these narrative discourses and the way in which they collapsed the boundary between public and private, by cynically deploying their private lives in order to receive sympathetic coverage. -- Highlighted mar 23, 2014

p.130: Decrying a ‘broken’ society, and valorizing the family as a route to national regeneration was a demonstrably popular—and cheap—way to garner mass support in conditions of social unease or moral panic. For the government, these sorts of pronouncements were often cynical communications exercises—yet for the press, they were deeply intertwined with one of the defining news agendas of the political age. -- Highlighted mar 23, 2014

p.132: In an article for the Guardian written following the riots of August 2011, Tony Blair condemned those who ‘elevated’ the riots ‘into a high-faluting wail about a Britain that has lost its way morally’, before referring back to his own reaction to the Bulger case, admitting that, ‘In 1993, following James Bulger’s murder, I made a case in very similar terms to the one being heard today about moral breakdown in Britain. I now believe that speech was good politics but bad policy.’ -- Highlighted mar 23, 2014

p.133: In the end, the real power of the tabloid press lay in its ability to shape discourse—to foreground certain issues, to crowd out others, and above all, to set the news agenda. -- Highlighted mar 23, 2014

p.136: As such, this article suggests further insights into the ongoing legacy of the permissive society—and perhaps more importantly, the reaction against it—by highlighting its part in the development of a morally populist political culture constructed around a fluid interchange between public and private. It is notable that some of the key tenets to emerge from the permissive movement—in particular, ‘the personal is political’—were in a sense appropriated and upheld by a Conservative discourse which presented personal morality and familial responsibility as fundamental to the success and health of the polity. -- Highlighted mar 23, 2014

p.137: The evidence that has been examined here strongly suggests that the political power of the press ultimately lies not in its ability to influence its readers through the official or unofficial endorsement of political parties (though this may play its part), but in its ability to shape discourse—to delimit the bounds of what is and is not discussed, and the manner in which it can be talked about. -- Highlighted mar 23, 2014