The Press and Popular Culture


Martin Conboy

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    Ich lebe mein Leben in wachsenden Ringen, die sich über die Dinge ziehn. (Rainer Maria Rilke)

    für Simone und Lara


    This book offers a much needed critical history of an underdeveloped area of journalism for examination – the popular press. Eschewing approaches to popular culture which restrict themselves to the contemporary, it proposes that the terrain of the popular has a history which must be understood if controversies about the current relationship between the popular and the press are to be fully engaged with. This historical critique is further distinguished by its cultural approach which centres on the use of language in constructing a rhetorical appeal to the people and how the popular press has been able to adapt that rhetorical call within different cultural paradigms.

    Framed by discussion of the Western European popular print tradition and the role which the popular press played in revolutionary movements, the book concentrates on the contrasts and comparisons between the popular newspaper as it emerged in the United States and Britain from the 1830s and the role this played in the formation of widely accepted definitions of popular culture. This historical approach serves to develop an awareness of the very important alignment within the popular press of the issues of power and public knowledge which underpin the economic imperatives and questions of citizenship inherent in popular readerships.

    Contemporary example and discussion drawn from Britain, Germany and the United States enables the debate to be located outside the narrow confines of national borders, as part of a debate about how the popular is being reconfigured in the popular press as a part of a global strategy while retaining its essential appeal to local readerships; meeting challenges by recombining aspects of its traditional rhetorical appeal.

    There are certainly important newspapers and important popular print genres which have been omitted from this account. It is not that they have no place in this critical history, more that constraints of space have meant that a sample view has been taken to illustrate its central theses outlined above.

    Any criticism of the fact that there is not enough attention paid to the specificities of the local, weekly, regional and evening variants of the popular press while undoubtedly true must be tempered by the book's primary aim which is to provide less a chronology of the popular press in its entirety and more an assessment of the themes and political debates attached to print journalism in general. This approach possibly favours an emphasis on the continuities within the popular press rather than on the differences to be found. This is a strategic decision taken in order to highlight the important political point made by the book that commercial popular culture has always depended on the rhetorical impression that it belongs somehow to the people and that this is nothing specific to the contemporary era.

    Nevertheless, I would hope that all omissions and other decisions about content and approach may serve to generate vigorous debate about the range of issues raised throughout the book.


    As this book charts several aspects of my developing professional interests over the last few years, it seems appropriate to acknowledge the people who have been instrumental and supportive on the way. My thanks go to Dr Heidrun Klemm who initially backed the inclusion of work on the British press into the curriculum at the University of Potsdam in the turbulent months after German Reunification and to Dr Wolfgang Petschan and Professor Wolfgang Wicht who subsequently encouraged and supported my Cultural Studies work there in the Institute for English and American Studies.

    At my current place of work, Dr Andrew Darley, Dr Matthew Rampley and Dr Helen Davis have all been supportive, stimulating and most importantly, friendly partisans in their unstinting efforts to establish a research culture. Without them the process of this work would have been much lonelier. Gwynneth Wilkey and Lindsay Da Silva have exceeded mere efficiency in their processing of my copious requests for library support for the research. Above all, I owe a debt of gratitude to Jane Taylor who has been stalwart in her championing of fresh approaches to journalism here in Farnham and in securing and protecting the time necessary for me to pursue this project. The Surrey Institute of Art and Design University College Research Fund has been generous in providing financial assistance in the important final stages of publication.

    In bringing an idea to fruition and in demonstrating the collegiality which can still prevail no matter how competitive the academic environment may become, Dr David Finkelstein and Dr Richard Keeble have helped more than they would appreciate through their encouraging support and timely textual interventions.

    To newspaper reader, Erich Hausmann, and the postal services of Dieter and Baärbel Vick my thanks for assistance in securing a regular supply of the German newspapers used in the book.

    Finally thanks to Julia Hall at Sage for her genuine enthusiasm and vision in enabling not only this book to see the light of day but the area of journalism to become opened up for broad intellectual enquiry.

  • Conclusion

    There are then a series of ambiguous positions around the carnivalesque, the melodrama and the popular voice articulated in the popular press. They can either be inclusive and positive as Docker (1994) tends to suggest, opening up momentary alternatives to the dominance of economic patterns. They can be manipulative and pejorative of both the political actor and the political process, as we have seen in discussions on vernacular and demotic address. For these to be simultaneously true the popular voice cannot have been incorporated in any truly representative way but must have been grafted onto the discourses of global news media. This gives the popular press its authentic feel; it retains at least the echo of the people and their interests outside these power blocs, whether this is articulated within the discourses of populist political engagement or within the discourses of escapist fantasy and melodrama.

    A negative history of the popular press in Britain is narrated briefly by Raymond Williams:

    first, the emergence of an independent popular press, directly related to radical politics, in the first decades of the nineteenth century; second, the direct attack on this, and its attempted suppression, in the period up to the 1830s …; and third (and most important as a way of understanding our own situation) the indirect attack, by absorption but also by new kinds of commercial promotion, which aimed not at suppressing the independent popular press but at replacing it, in fact by the simulacrum of popular journalism that we still have in such vast quantities today. (Smith, 1975: 204)

    Although Williams's concerns for a properly functioning political press are still of relevance, his analysis of the popular press dramatically underestimates the economic and normative linkage of any press that has claimed to represent the people. Perhaps we must see the early nineteenth-century British radical/popular press as an exception rather than as an ideal type. The radical Unstamped in Britain is divorced from many of the traditional features of popular print.

    The popular as representative of the people, certainly in the contemporary era, only has currency when that is reflected in a mass appeal. Authenticity is now economically marked, not by some reference to a set of criteria unrelated to number. That battle was lost with the liberalization of the newspaper markets in Europe and in the United States. We may bemoan the inability of the newspaper to genuinely and consistently campaign on radical popular issues, but if we expect that we are perhaps looking in the wrong place for pure action. The press as an economic agent can only modulate its popular appeal through economics. This does not stop it being representative of many areas of ordinary, everyday life and popular culture – but then again these were never absolutely radical at any point in their history.

    An approach rooted in the rhetoric of popular culture may resolve this potential antagonism in a slightly different way but still in terms of the complex negotiation of a variety of features, including its ability to talk representatively on behalf of the people, despite its involvement in larger economic processes which are inimicable to them as a class or interest group.

    Genre, rhetoric and the traditions of popular culture provide a complex but dynamic view of how the content and politics of the popular press play their part in authenticating their appeals to the people. These rhetorical aspects are crucial in the negotiation of the hegemonic site of the popular in the press.

    The traditional narrative elements and characterizations, coupled with the colloquial and strong demotic appeal of the language, enhance the apparent participatory nature of the popular press as it is conducted in a complex refraction of popular tastes. These tastes are harnessed in a set of commercial, commodified imperatives within the political economy of the newspapers. But their popularity does not mean that they are liberationary in any sense. The paradox is that the forms and genres may have subversive potential – that is their popular appeal – but, within the political economy, these forms and genres are what is surrendered in order for the power bloc to maintain its hegemonic control in this play of give and take to stabilize the system. Peter Golding argues that ‘… “tabloidisation” is, in fact, at least partly the process by which the popular is incorporated into the political’ (1999: 62).

    The popular press enables a deep structure to cohere where there is a diminution of direct political involvement but in its images of politics and in its rhetoric it provides a disturbing aestheticization of the people to counterbalance the personalization and even trivialization of politics at its core. Its version of vernacular, carnivalesque and melodrama play a part in making such politics attractive and therefore marketable.

    I would argue with Bromley and Tumber (1997: 365) that although the popular press is different from its broadsheet neighbour, particularly in its tradition of popular miscellany and its prioritization of entertainment, this does not lessen the political impacts, in particular its normative influence through its narratives of nation and community. In fact, its incorporation of its idealized readership into a discourse apparently divorced from mainstream political-economic coverage, makes its worldview all the more powerful for it is located within the rhetoric of the everyday and the common-sense of popular culture.

    It is connected to everyday life through the vernacular and their inclusion into broader cultural patterns of media consumption such as TV celebrity, soap storyline, music and film stars and popular memory, through on iconography of the nation (Conboy: 99). These are the bridges between the trivial and the serious, which include the personalization of the public space as well as the commercialization of the private domain. Popular tabloid newspapers in Britain are different from their broadsheet cousins but their miscellany contains a politics – one suited to a consumer-oriented, popular cultural postmodernity.

    This popular press, then, is resistant to many aspects of the political elite and quick to point a corrective finger at deviant behaviour, but it lacks a corresponding politics that is able to define any alternative approach. It maintains a cool, ironic detachment from the overtly political elements of the traditional bourgeois public sphere. Its deployment of popular cultural devices and genres such as the carnivalesque and the melodramatic, allied to a strong grasp of a vernacular address, allow these papers to employ popular cultural forms for hegemonic ends. The Sun can still claim, with a reasonable amount of authority, that it is ‘THE PEOPLE'S PAPER’, as it does as a banner on its front page. This claim no longer resides in ownership but exclusively in representation and rhetoric – it represents and refracts the views of the people in a deliberately populist format and agenda. It may be a ‘parody of a newspaper’ as McGuigan has called the Sun (1992: 185) but this may not be as negative a term as he intends. This parodic approach constitutes a timely and commercially successful solution to the problem of mass popular readerships in contemporary Britain.

    The newspaper is, as a genre, always attempting to edit down a range of worldviews, to structure them so as to cohere to an institutional and a cultural framework of expectation. It is involved in arresting the hetero-glossic flows which always attend to democratic communication. In post-modernity, its ability to achieve this feat is strained. Yet popular newspapers still achieve it through their ability to draw upon and develop a rhetoric of demotic conformity. Tabloidization, dumbing down and other debates are simply anxieties that a slippage of control – hegemonic since the victories of the capitalist press in the mid nineteenth-century – is occurring. They are really debates about the function of newspapers at this particular time of representational crisis. The impact of the popular press on the broadsheets in the so-called tabloidization debate is further proof of the ability, so marked in postmodernity, of popular forms to infect bourgeois forms. The fact that the debate reaches the content of and direction of the broadsheets means that they are continuing to redefine the popular as an expanding discourse and even to redefine the broadsheets' space as a political medium.

    The popular cultural rhetoric of parody, pastiche, blank irony, the mingling of the cultural and the commercial, the public and the private are all forms of what Jameson terms ‘infection’, “the very prototype of what we may call the postmodern mode of totalizing” (1991: 373). The apparent ability of the popular press to export this to broadsheet newspapers is a sign of its resilience and effectiveness as well as a symptom of postmodernity.

    Is the disturbing phenomenon in contemporary popular print journalism not that it has lost sight of its need to bring its readership, as the people, a diet of political news, but that it has lost sight of the linkage between the people and the popular? There remains simply a voice, an echo, an aural version of Baudrillard's simulacrum. Perhaps postmodernity's critique's obsession with the visuality of image has led to a neglect of voice. Recognizing these aspects of the ‘orality’ of the popular press leads us to conclude it is based just as much on the articulation of an image.

    How, then, does the popular perform as a discourse and how does the popular press arrest the loosening of that embrace which Foucault has observed is so characteristic of discourses (Foucault, 1974: 49)? The popular press is still dependent on rhetorical appeal to legitimate its claim to popularity and to represent the people and their interests, particularly as articulated against the power bloc. This is manifest in two distinct but interconnecting ways. First, there is the attempt to further stylize the popular, vernacular voice. Second, the newspaper seeks to integrate itself and its discourses with an ever-expanding number of other popular discourses and genres to add legitimacy to its own rhetoric of popularity. The growth of consumer capitalism has meant that more and more genres are now available for popularization and the newspaper has moved adeptly to colonize them as it has always moved rapidly to incorporate the interests and speech of the masses. Key aspects of this include:

    • Hybridity, as ever it was, is the key to their success and the consistency of their voice, their rhetoric.
    • The people are interpellated as consumers or as a nation. This approach combines the new mode of integrated consumerist identity and lifestyle with a more resilient version of older modernist configurations of national community.
    • Celebrity and consumerism are used as conduits to everyday concerns of illness, crime, heartbreak.

    Politics is covered in a watchdog sort of way but confined very much to a perspective of the status quo and the occasional bout of aggressive agenda setting. Politics is often, in addition, presented in an adversarial fashion with either/or choices or presentations, which further serve to contract choice back to two already delineated options. Phone-ins and campaigns are extensions of the popular rhetoric of appeal to the readers as democratic processes, initially perfected by the American mass-selling dailies and continuing restricted to their conservative agenda.

    In conclusion, we must reassert that the contemporary tabloid newspaper remains a challenge to bourgeois notions of the public sphere, particularly in its political manifestations. That it maintains a continuity with its predecessors both in terms of the popular newspaper and more broadly popular culture and aligns itself with contemporary configurations is not simply a last-gasp effort to rescue a place for itself in the coming decades but part of a longer more intrinsic strategy for the popular to graft itself onto whatever other current cultural and political discourses are constructing the people. Thus the ability of the popular newspaper to articulate its readers in a rhetoric acceptable to them is part of its tradition and also part of the challenge that exists forever within this hegemonic tension of exchange.

    The idea of an infinite re-exploration of this readership and the implication that the readership is in fact a key element in the creative resources of this press has a familiarity to readers who appreciate the ‘hall of mirrors’ of postmodernity, the recycling of previous paradigms and styles in cycles of simplicity and elaboration. David Harvey has observed that: ‘During phases of maximal change, the spatial and temporal bases for reproduction of the social order are subject to the severest disruption … it is exactly at such moments that major shifts in systems of representation, cultural forms, and philosophical sentiment occur’ (1989: 239).

    The popular press, with its reliance on narratives that draw on established genres and scripts, is a key and subtle purveyor of normative assumptions to a mass audience. Therefore it is inevitable that major shifts in how an era is narrated and how its aesthetics are constructed will have an influence on the content, rhetoric and impact of the popular press itself as part of that mainstream of integrated popular experience. In addition, the press is passing through one of those phases of ‘maximal change’. This is demonstrated by the effects on the popular press and the press in general of the intensified economic effects and cultural shifts percolating through from popular culture and everyday life. To this extent, beating in tune with the common experiences of its readers, the popular press is as problematically authentic as it ever was.


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