Were the tabloid newspapers of the mid-20th century merely commercial enterprises selling entertainment or vital guardians of the public interest?


As early as the 18th century, the press had served the formula “intelligence, instruction and entertainment,” telling us that news, advice, and lifestyle coverage were considered vital components of a newspaper before the construction of tabloid.[1] After exclusively serving the educated middle classes, the press increasingly began to address the newly literate working classes between the 1930s and 1980s.[2] It is within this context that the “new journalism” of tabloids developed; for the purpose of this essay, the ‘mid-20th century’ will therefore refer to this period, with occasional reference to the inter-war period for the purpose of contextualisation.[3] Tabloids can also be referred to as the popular press, including: the Daily Express, the Daily Mail, The Sun, the News of the World, and the Daily Mirror, which – based on their content – are considered to be “less serious” publications than The Times.[4] In 1937, The Mirror dedicated a mere 8% of its total space to political, social and economic news; feature articles, columnists and readers’ letters dominated the rest.[5] This change can be explained by two factors: firstly, the acknowledgement of the working class as an audience that required a lighter style of communication than the dense traditional newspaper; secondly, the press had become less dependent on funding from political parties, with mass advertising providing two-thirds of their income since the mid-30s; therefore, the newspaper fundamentally

transitioned from a self-serving political agenda into an established business.[6] In order to determine whether the British tabloid of the mid-20th century was primarily seen by its owners as a commercial enterprise or was a vital guardian of public interest, I will firstly examine tabloids in the context of economic competition. I will then examine how these tabloids addressed public interest in two sections: lifestyle and politics. However, it is important to recognise that these factors do not have to be mutually exclusive.

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Media sociologist Jean Chalaby argues that “there is no discursive production without an expectation of profit: symbolic, political, economic.”[7] This statement suggests that newspapers are fundamentally business enterprises regardless of their content. The perception of journalism as a branch of commerce became evident after 1918, although the initial development of the commercialised press can be traced back to the late-nineteenth century when  the ideal of an informed public gave way to the realities of a competitive market.[8] Some of the early pioneers of popular journalism were active business managers, and there can be no doubt that the press barons – whom these criteria this applied to – were responsible for substantial changes in the economic organisation of the field during the 20th century, ultimately monopolising the press.[9] Rupert Murdoch, for example, has been labelled by historians Asa Briggs and Peter Burke as a media tycoon and empire builder after buying both The Sun and the News of The World in 1969, and The Times (although not a tabloid) in 1981.[10] By 1921, the Harmsworth brothers (Northcliffe 1865-1922, Rothermere 1868-1940) controlled an aggregate circulation of 6 million.[11] It was this “predominantly commercial aspect of newspaper enterprises had an impact on the nature of much of the popular press, with entertainment values dominating over news and information.”[12] Certainly, Northcliffe understood that “heavy politics” “[would] prevent [him] getting circulation”, and declared that “leading articles, a page of Parliament, and columns of speeches [would] not be found in the Daily Mail” on the 4th May 1896, setting the format of his newspaper going into the 20th century.[13] From this, we can assume that Northcliffe recognised that he would alienate a considerable market – the unfranchised – if he were to produce a heavily politicised paper. Instead, Northcliffe improved his coverage of agriculture, transport, technology, sports, fashion, leisure and entertainment. These features, he believed, would appeal to the masses, he believed, making the statement that “a newspaper should not merely inform but also amuse and entertain.”[14] In addition, it can be argued that Lord Riddell (1865-1934, the News of The World) and Lord Southwood (1873-1946, The Daily Herald) had no interest in the politics of their respective papers and possessed no desire to exert political power and influence over the masses; their sole interest lay in money making.[15] Taking into consideration the significance of advertisers in the funding of the tabloid, the press barons were unsurprisingly intent on providing content that would appeal to mass audiences, who in turn would attract more investors (knowing that their advert would reach the enlarged market of readers the tabloids were catering to), whose expenditure would “ensure the profitability of the publishing companies”.[16] Publisher and editor, George Newnes, agrees with this, believing that “another kind of journalism which has no such great ambitions…giving wholesale and harmless entertainment to crowds of hardworking people crowing for a little fun and amusement” emerged during the 20th century upon the acceptance of the literate working class.[17]

Arguably, the tabloid emerged when the need to possess a unique selling point became apparent to the press barons. Papers generally covered the same news content (from different angles), therefore in order to stand out, they had to “spice [their paper] up with entertainment, humour, and lived experience” if they were to continue running a sustainable business.[18] Increased pressure under renewed competition forced the papers to adapt their content to changing economic circumstances.[19] Author and journalist graduate, Martin Conboy, argues that British “standards of journalism degenerated” as newspaper editors competed with mid-20th century information and entertainment technology – namely the radio and television – which ultimately confirmed the newspaper’s status as a commercial enterprise.[20] This meant that more entertainment and less information was included in tabloids, with journalists telling stories in fewer words.[21] It was for this reason that author Adrian Bingham believed that  the “thoughtful journalism,” that had existed in traditional newspapers, was compromised by the tabloid proprietors’ “relentless pursuit of profit.”[22] It is important to note however, that although economic gain plays a prominent role in the development of the commercial press, the competition for power, legitimacy, and cultural and social capital were also prominent factors.[23]

Although the mid-20th century tabloid fundamentally belonged to the commercial sector, this does not automatically prevent them from being guardians of the public interest (the welfare of society) in addition to being business enterprises. Whilst the inclusion of more advertisements and lifestyle articles could be reduced to a simple marketing strategy, they also had the power to shape the way readers conducted their lives. It is important to note that the concept of ‘public interest’ is not static; this means that public interest can range from fashion issues to political concerns depending on the context. As early as 1915, Printer’s Ink had given the 20th century the subtitle: “The Age of Advertising.”[24] By 1919, the variety of goods on sale had increased, creating a consumer culture interested in the ownership of new technologies; cars, radios, telephones, washing machines, vacuum cleaners, refrigerators, and clothing were now of public interest in Britain, having established a link between material comfort and happiness.[25] It can be argued that the advertiser was taking on the role of the consumer’s friend, giving them advice on new products that would aid women in the home and thus would improve their wellbeing.[26] By providing readers with advice on issues relating to health, the home, parenting, relationships, decoration and fashion, the tabloid shaped the lives of those who “distrust[ed] their own inexpert judgement” on these matters.[27]

In addition to advertising home improvements, the mid-20th century press defended public interest on arguably more serious issues, engaging with the broad interests of the working class.[28] The Daily Mail (the world’s largest selling paper in the world in 1921 with a world net sale of 1,365,000 copies per day) boasted to have done more than reflect the concerns of society by shaping and probing them.[29] Between 1927-1937, the Daily Mirror halved the space it devoted to political, economic and social issues, focusing on domestic and public affairs instead.[30] Although these pieces were undeniably written in a sensationalist way in order to attract readers, they were in the public interest as it provided information from which one could form opinions on existing values within society; this is particularly relevant in a society that fed off more gossip and rumour than it had in the1800s.[31] For this reason, coverage tended to favour dramatic quality over the mundane, with the knowledge that this would target public passions.[32] The Cassandra column written for the Daily Mirror in July 1955 illustrates this by sensationalising the spectacle of the last woman to be hanged in the UK:

“If you read this before 4 o’clock this morning, the last dreadful and obscene preparations for hanging are about to start…

If you are reading this column at 6am, they are walking her up to have her last breakfast (if she was able to sleep at all)…

If you are reading this at 7:45 am the gaolers are now leading her towards the platform of death.

If you are reading this at 7:45am they are putting the hanging rope around her neck and a hood over her head.”[33]

This excerpt is a direct plea made by the tabloid for clemency, intertwining itself with the life of the ordinary person by addressing the time of day, synching the act of reading the article to those of the hanging.[34] Therefore, I would argue that, although the press barons were concerned with their circulation and used sensationalism in order to achieve this, this does not mean that they did not feel strongly about the issues they discussed in their papers, as the tabloid was ultimately still functioning as an “organ of opinion”, raising affairs they thought the public should react to.[35]

Although the tabloid reduced the amount of space given to political affairs, this does not mean this fundamental section stopped intervening in matters of public interest. Particularly in times of national emergency, such as war, the press remained influential in shaping public opinion and sustaining national morale.[36] Media historian Kevin Williams believes that the Daily Mirror had a “special relationship” with the British working classes which began during the Second World War.[37] This tabloid is ultimately responsible for sowing the “seeds of the social change” in the 1950s and 1960s.[38] Relaunched in 1935 by Rothermere, the Mirror was Britain’s first mass market tabloid, and strongly supported the Beveridge report regarding social welfare provision, popularising the term ‘from cradle to grave’ with article headlines such as “How to Be Born, Bred and Buried by Beveridge.”[39] The Mirror therefore, identified the concerns of the working classes and communicated them in a way that they could understand and react accordingly.[40] By campaigning for a better, fairer and more just Britain after the war, a view popular amongst service men and women, the Mirror enabled the labour party to secure a landslide victory in 1945.[41] This victory was undoubtedly made possible with the extension of the franchise in both 1918 and 1924 which increased the Edwardian electorate four-fold, enabling all men and women over the age of 21 vote.[42] However, this would only have significant effect if politics were to be made more accessible for the electorate who had previously been alienated from this sphere. I would therefore argue, that the tabloid continued to proactively engage with matters of public interest, as it encouraged political awareness and the exchange of opinion.[43]


I would conclude that the tabloid was both an example of a commercial enterprise based on entertainment, and a guardian of the public interest. Fundamentally, the tabloid press is a business, regardless of whether it merely advertises or informs the public on issues relating to their welfare. Once established, the realities of a competitive market forced the papers to address circulation strategies, forcing out the majority of politicised material as this was not relevant to the wider interests of the society, particularly before the expansion of the franchise.

Each tabloid must be individually assessed in order to determine the extent to which it was interested in exerting influence over the masses as it is clear that the attitudes of the press barons cannot be generalised in this regard. In the same way, it is important to note that the concept of public interest is not static, and concerns anything relating to the wellbeing of society, ranging from home improvements to the death penalty.

Ultimately, these two factors do not have to be mutually exclusive, and it would be difficult to separate them entirely. It cannot be disputed that the paper was an economic enterprise, the question is whether the tabloid defended public interest which is determined by the amount of coverage on political and social issues. Despite matters of public interest being presented in a sensationalist way in order to stimulate circulation, they undoubtedly encouraged discourse through campaigns for a fairer Britain, which led to a change in government; this is undeniably in the public interest.



Bingham, Adrian. “An Organ of Uplift?” in Journalism Studies, Vol. 14, Issue 5 (2013) (pp.651-662).

Bingham, Adrian; Conboy, Martin. “The Daily Mirror and the Creation of a Commercial Popular Language”, Journalism Studies, Vol. 10, Issue 5 (2009) (pp. 639-654).

Briggs, Asa; Burke, Peter. Social History of the Media: From Gutenberg to the Internet (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2010).

Calderwood, Paul. Freemasonry and the Press in the Twentieth Century: A National Newspaper Study of England and Wales (London: Routledge, 2013).

Chalaby, Jean K. The Invention of Journalism (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1998).

Chalaby, Jean K. “ ‘Smiling Pictures Make People Smile’: Northcliffe’s Journalism”, in Media History, Vol. 6, No. 1 (2000) (pp. 33-44).

Cranfield, G. A. The Press and Society: From Caxton to Northcliffe (London: Routledge, 1978).

Curran, James; Smith, Anthony; Wingate, Pauline (eds.). Impacts and Influences: Media Power in the Twentieth Century, (London: Routledge, 1987).

Curran, James; Seaton, Jean. Power Without Responsibility: The Press, Broadcasting, and New Media in Britain (London: Routledge, 2003)

Gorman, Lyn; McLean, David. Media and Society into the 21st Century: A Historical Introduction (New Jersey: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009).

Williams, Kevin. Read All About It!: A History of the British Newspaper (London: Routledge, 2009).


[1] G. A. Cranfield, The Press and Society: From Caxton to Northcliffe (London: Routledge, 1978), p.208.

[2] Paul Calderwood, Freemasonry and the Press in the Twentieth Century: A National Newspaper Study of England and Wales (London: Routledge, 2013), p.15; Cranfield, p.208.

[3] Calderwood, p.15; Cranfield, p.208.

[4] Calderwood, p.16.

[5] Adrian Bingham and Martin Conboy, “The Daily Mirror and the Creation of a Commercial Popular Language”, Journalism Studies, Vol. 10, Issue 5 (2009), p.659.

[6]Bingham and Conboy, p. 639; Jean Seaton, ‘The Era of Press Barons’, in James Curran and Jean Seaton, Power Without Responsibility: The Press, Broadcasting, and New Media in Britain (London: Routledge, 2003) pp.44-45.

[7]Jean K. Chalaby, The Invention of Journalism (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1998), p.37.

[8] D.G. Boyce, ‘Crusaders Without Chains’ in Impacts and Influences: Media Power in the Twentieth Century, ed. by James Curran, Anthony Smith, Pauline Wingate (London: Routledge, 1987), p.105;Lyn Gorman and David McLean, Media and Society into the 21st Century: A Historical Introduction (New Jersey: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009), p.9; Asa Briggs and Peter Burke, Social History of the Media: From Gutenberg to the Internet (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2010), p.184.

[9] Jean K. Chalaby, “‘Smiling Pictures Make People Smile’: Northcliffe’s Journalism”, in Media History, Vol. 6, No. 1 (2000), p.33; Gorman and McLean, p.5;Seaton, p.42.

[10] Briggs and Burke, p.193.

[11] Seaton, p.38.

[12] Gorman and McLean, p.22.

[13] Chalaby, ‘Smiling Pictures Make People Smile’, p.35.

[14]Chalaby, ‘Smiling Pictures Make People Smile’, pp. 35-36.

[15]Kevin Williams, Read All About It!: A History of the British Newspaper (London: Routledge, 2009), p.166.

[16] Gorman and McLean, p.8.

[17] D.G. Boyce,p.98

[18]Bingham and Conboy, p.640.

[19]Chalaby, ‘Smiling Pictures Make People Smile’, p.33.

[20] Calderwood, p.30; Gorman and McLean, p.21.

[21] Briggs and Burke, p.183, p.190.

[22]Bingham and Conboy, p.652.

[23] Chalaby, The Invention of Journalism, p.33.

[24] Gorman and McLean, p.64.

[25] Gorman and McLean, pp.66-7.

[26]Gorman and McLean, p.68.

[27] Gorman and McLean, p.68.

[28] Bingham and Conboy, p. 641.

[29] Tom Jeffrey and Keith McClelland, ‘A World Fit to Live In: The Daily Mail and the Middle Classes 1918-39’ in Impacts and Influences, p.28; Briggs and Burke, p.182.

[30] Seaton, p.43, pp.51-52.

[31] Briggs and Burke, p.186.

[32] Chalaby, ‘Smiling Pictures Make People Smile’, p.38.

[33] Williams, p.183.

[34] Williams, p.183.

[35] Chalaby, ‘Smiling Pictures Make People Smile’, p.36, p.39;

[36] Gorman and McLean, p.5, p.15.

[37] Williams, p.182.

[38] Williams, p.182.

[39] Williams, p.182, p.185.

[40] Williams, p.185.

[41] Williams, p.184.

[42] Adrian Bingham, “An Organ of Uplift?” in Journalism Studies, Vol. 14, Issue 5 (2013) p.651.

[43] Bingham, p.660.

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