Ghislaine Maxwell. Photograph: Simon Dawson/Reuters
We’ve all seen these tabloids. Prince Harry has moved on, with Camilla Thurlow, and Sir Michael Caine has just broken up with her. Then the world turns its attention to Surrey where Ghislaine Maxwell, the former mistress of Princess Diana, awaits trial for bribing an Iraq military investigator and bribery. The Essex Press, the local paper, has been sending out its reporters to cover the trial and giving us real-time updates on the normally formulaic court process.
Can a news story be both tabloid and serious? Let’s hope so. It could be a sign of how far our society has come. BBC Radio 4’s Huw Edwards may say that the monarchy doesn’t want publicity for all of its troubles, but I don’t believe that for a second. Yes, there are a lot of traditions attached to royal life, but if you are as famous as Princess Diana, you would probably get your own TV show. After all, she was – and remains – absolutely marketable. Diana may no longer be with us, but while the proceeds of her real estate holdings are still rolling in, the rest of us can enjoy a glimpse into her life for free.
I hope that the trial inspires more newspapers to rethink their treatment of celebrities, or at least the way they portray them. My hope is that it helps to further break down the barriers between the “regular” (me) and the “famous” (Diana). Remember, it wasn’t only the press that pressured Diana into going into rehab: she had also been snubbed and ridiculed at Buckingham Palace.
Last week, one ITV anchor had this to say about his breakfast programme: “An hour or two of top-rate light entertainment, interspersed with champagne and strawberries. So … how does the rest of ITV service compare?” Since the show drew out the “noisy” idents more than an hour before it began, this was certainly a one-sided slant.
Within days, Gary Lineker was complaining on Twitter that his show was terrible, but had failed to make it on to the ITV breakfast list. Also, without Lineker there would be no Strictly Come Dancing, which has become a huge ratings winner. But it isn’t so much a chore as a choreographed slaughter. No one was surprised, though, when the ITV man so often spent more time talking to his colleagues than we viewers got to see. The programme lacked a bit of class. Instead of offering an alternative to the rubbish coming out of all those TV channels and radio stations, ITV so long ago lost all purpose or purposeless interactivity in the name of a lame old TV format.
One could understand if station bosses had their fingers burnt when the OJD doesn’t yield sufficient ratings. But that happens to everyone. The Radcliffe and Maconie 2016 survey estimated that newspapers get 26% of their income from advertising and in the worst cases up to half their income. Looking at the numbers, are journalists really going to suddenly go out of business overnight? In these times of crushing financial pressure and diminishing levels of remuneration, hardly.
What is most worrying is the future of local news: the show must serve the whole community as one of the last bastions of intelligent, balanced, balanced and objective journalism. It needs to be about quality not quantity, but no one seems to be able to agree on how to produce it. Many are genuinely horrified by the danger of going completely digital, especially if it means going totally free (and this is being floated by some broadcasters who are acting as if they have never heard of the web or being able to access anything or anyone remotely as online as the rest of us).
At the end of each week, the Radcliffe and Maconie survey could report that more people have discussed a possible medium switchover than they have gossiped about celebrities.
The scary part is that there is every chance that these are the people at the top of their profession and these are people who feel they owe their future to that tabloid market. But worse is going to happen. A recent editorial suggested we could face “an online dustup between the breakfast overkill specialists and the minimal-quality watch and rewind crowd”.