Page last updated at 04:22 GMT, Tuesday, 10 March 2009

How crime has lost out to showbiz

By Chris Summers
BBC News

Imagine a time before reality TV, wall-to-wall celebrities, 24/7 news channels, political spin and the public relations industry.

newspaper front pages
Celebrity gossip has forced out a lot of hard news in modern newspapers
Believe it or not, once upon a time, newspapers and television news bulletins were full of actual news involving actual people, much of it generated by reporters on the crime beat.

The demise of the crime reporter, and the decline of investigative journalism in general, has coincided almost perfectly during the past 20 years with the rise of celebrity news.

Tittle-tattle about soap stars, Premier League footballers, TV chefs and even those who "starred" in shows like Big Brother now makes up the bulk of tabloid newspaper content, and it has seeped inevitably into upmarket papers and TV news and current affairs programmes.

This is a world in which the first photograph of TV presenter Davina McCall, pregnant, walking down the street, was sold to a newspaper for 7,500.

Death of Fleet Street

Other factors have no doubt played a part - the rise of public relations (PR) and press officers and the gradual move away from Fleet Street by the national newspapers meant the culture of journalists getting out of their offices and chatting to detectives, lawyers, politicians, entrepreneurs and other "sources" over a drink in a pub has ebbed away.

"Hard news is declining and there has been a movement towards 'lifestyle journalism', often provided by PRs or agencies. It is cheap and fairly easy," says Bob Franklin, professor of journalism studies at Cardiff University.

He says: "I often wonder why we train our students to cover the courts and council meetings because when they get jobs they rarely have to do either. Journalists do not get out of their offices as much as they used to. There is a lot more juggling the wires [news agencies] and press releases.

Duncan Campbell at The Guardian
Newspapers don't want to run lengthy court reports. We are playing up to an attention deficit disorder
Duncan Campbell
The Guardian

"After all, discussing the latest celebrity dress is easier than uncovering corruption on a local council."

Duncan Campbell, the Guardian's long-time crime correspondent, who is retiring this year after four decades in journalism, says: "Nowadays you get much more homogenous news with all the media chasing the same stories."

"Most newspapers, and the BBC and others, have websites and they can see from the number of hits a story gets what is popular.

"You will find a story about [Cristiano] Ronaldo or Kate Moss will be massively hit, which you will not necessarily get from an interesting story with nobody famous in it."

Campbell says crime coverage has been one of the biggest casualties, with newspapers and broadcasters massively downsizing their teams.

Retreat of the reporters

Old Bailey reporter Dave St George can vouch for that.

"I started here in 1969 when I was asked to supply the Telegraph, Mirror and the Standard," he says.

"In those days PA [the Press Association] had seven people covering the Old Bailey, and the Express, Mail and the Times all had staffers down here."

PA now has two hard-working but over-stretched journalists covering the Old Bailey and supplying copy to the national newspapers, who long ago withdrew their court reporters back to their offices.

Dave St George in his office in the bowels of the Old Bailey
The other day there was a fellow jailed for 30 years for shooting at a policeman. That would have been a big story a few years ago, but nowadays it doesn't even merit a mention
Dave St George

St George says: "I used to get four or five stories in the Telegraph every day. Now I never hear from the newsdesks from one year to the next. They're filling the papers with all this other stuff.

"The other day there was a fellow jailed for 30 years for shooting at a policeman. That would have been a big story a few years ago, but nowadays it doesn't even merit a mention," St George says.

The case of Carlton Sam only merited three paragraphs in the Sun and one paragraph in the Mirror. No other national newspaper reported it.

Ironically the reduction in coverage coincides with a rise in the number of crimes.

"In the 1970s if we had one homicide a fortnight it was big news," St George says.

This week there are 11 ongoing murder trials at the Old Bailey.

So have readers just had their fill of crime? Would they rather read about the new mansion Ronaldo has bought or discover why an EastEnders actress has split up with her boyfriend?

Carlton Sam, jailed for 30 years
Carlton Sam, who shot at police, barely merited a mention

Yes, says Mark Frith, former editor of Heat magazine and author of The Celeb Diaries.

"There was an untapped market and the whole [Princess] Diana phenomenon showed that people wanted to read about people in the public eye," he says.

"Posh and Becks was the start of the celebrity age and since then it has moved on to people like Jade Goody, who was the most read story on the BBC website two days running."

Frith says: "Editors have to decide which stories will engage their readers and they will not mourn for stories that they have not got room for."

A spokesman for the Daily Telegraph told the BBC: "Our aim is to provide up-to-date, reliable news and comment for our readers from a range of voices. We believe we have been successful in that, including appealing to changing audiences, which is why we remain the market-leading news provider."

Professor Justin Lewis, head of the School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies at Cardiff University, has conducted research on the changing content of newspapers.

He says: "There is no doubt that celebrity news as a category has grown markedly, especially in broadcasting.

"There is a perception that that is what people want but there is not actually that much evidence that it is. People may say it sells newspapers, but clearly it doesn't because circulation is still going down."

But he adds: "I don't think there is a shortage of crime coverage, but it's just a different type. Big newsworthy crimes still get covered rather than the day-to-day business of the courts."

TV to blame?

Jeff Edwards, who was the Mirror's crime correspondent until being made redundant last year, agrees: "I don't think crime reporting is dead. There is not a huge dropping off in interest in law enforcement. But there is a dropping off in stories about ordinary people."

Professor Franklin says there is no doubt the courts are not covered like they used to be, but he says there is still a big demand from the public for crime stories, especially "cause celebres" like the cases of Madeline McCann and Shannon Matthews.

Campbell says: "Newspapers don't want to run lengthy court reports. We are playing up to an attention deficit disorder. There is a feeling that people can't take large chunks of information, whether it's on radio, on television or in newspapers."

Fleet Street in 1971
Fleet Street has changed out of all recognition since the 1970s

He pins part of the blame on TV.

"The concept of rolling news, where the competition is not to explain something better but to have a version up quicker. Speed, rather than depth, has become the essence," he says.

"Decent court reporting is also very people-intensive. Sometimes you may have to hang around for a few days without getting anything in the paper, but you bump into lawyers, police officers, even defendants and somebody tells you something and you get a story emerging."

Campbell's latest novel is a "requiem for the old days of crime reporting" and focuses on an Old Bailey reporter struggling with a celebrity-obsessed newsdesk.

He sees the same trends in local newspapers, where cut-backs have meant it is extremely rare to see journalists at most magistrates' and even crown courts.

But one place where crime reporting thrives is Scotland, where tabloid papers regularly lead with tales of organised crime.

The editor of the Sunday Mail, Allan Rennie, says: "I don't know if it's because Scots like crime stories or whether organised crime is more visible up here, more like old-fashioned criminals like the Krays."

Rennie adds: "Nowadays it's a fact of life that you can't afford to send staff to spend days on end at court."

He thinks one possible answer would be to allow television cameras inside courts.

Changing media

The media has changed enormously since the 1970s.

The cover of If It Bleeds
In Duncan Campbell's book a court reporter battles with his newsdesk

Reporters are now equipped with mobile phones, laptops, Blackberrys and digital cameras and can file copy much quicker than in the old days.

The general public are often invited to become "citizen journalists" by e-mailing or texting in photographs or reportage of incidents they have witnessed, including pictures of celebs doing embarrassing or even mundane things.

But citizen journalists cannot cover court cases - they are not trained in the legal pitfalls and are unlikely to have any shorthand skills - so the criminal justice system goes under-reported.

Who cares?

But does it matter?

Professor Lewis says: "The danger is that it potentially distorts our perception of crime."

St George says there is another danger.

"Princes and paupers and politicians can get away with murder if there is nobody on the press bench to report it," he says.

"And if an accused wants to declare their innocence to the world who is there to report it?"

Campbell says: "Who knows how many scandals we have missed? People might have got away with a lot of stuff because there are far less investigative journalists going out and actually covering things. It's far easier to shove a celebrity picture on a page rather than go out and find a story."

But he is hopeful for the future.

He says: "There may be a reaction to the trivialisation of the news, to the spin and the vitriol, in ways I can't predict. We are in a period of enormous change and people may want to know about stories in far greater detail."

If It Bleeds, by Duncan Campbell, is due out this week.


Your comments:

"News coverage" has all but disappeared. To be replaced by, [the infinitely more profitable - so we are told], sensationalism, speculation and conjecture of today's "news stories".
Chris Neame, Bodrum, Turkey

I have stopped buying daily newspapers as all the tabloids have simply turned into celebrity gossip magazines and I have no interest in that. I still get a weekend broadsheet but even then news is pretty thin on the ground. A sad state of affairs.
Vince, Hertfordshire, UK

The biggest change I've noticed in news coverage over the past 20 years is that I don't buy newspapers any more. I used to buy a morning and evening paper, as did my husband, but now it is very rare. Maybe if I'm going on a long train journey I'll invest in one (mainly for the puzzles page) but they always seem to be full of the same old rehashed stories and features. Recently I've taken to picking up a book instead.
Jane, Southampton, UK

I have noticed a great change in the past 10 years and even the past 20 years. The writing is more simple, and the subject "here today, gone tomorrow". I think it's very sad that the media has moved its position to one of entertainment rather than news. That probably explains why younger people don't have a clue who the people are who govern their lives and only aspire to be like the latest pop sensation.
Michael Hunter, Stourbridge, UK

Indeed there seems a bit less crime coverage but this is a very good thing! Excessive journalistic coverage of crime has contributed to a widespread belief that crime is rising even when it is actually falling, with tragic social consequences for us all.
W, Blakesley, UK

Although there has been a reduction in crime stories we still have a vast number of fear-generating news stories. Knife crime is a prime example of this phenomenon with the tabloids creating the impression that down every dark alley in London a knife wielding criminal is lurking.
L. Freeman, London

I buy a newspaper every day mainly for the showbiz gossip. I think a newspaper should be seen as an entertainment forum as well as providing real news. The simple truth is that showbiz stories sell more newspapers than typical crime stories and that is probably why there are now so many more weekly showbiz magazines filling up newsagents' shelves.
Mark Rogers, Hove, UK

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