by Stephen Tall on May 7, 2006
The British Library is hosting an exhibition, Front Page: Celebrating 100 Years of the British Newspaper 1906-2006, opening on 25th May, and running through until October.
No matter that the internet now provides many of us with our primary source of news, newspaper front pages can, at their best, provide a memorably unrivalled expression of a national mood. Or, at their worst, they can encapsulate all that you might disdain in their political attitude. Or, at their most embarrassing, they can get it wrong big-time.
Here’s my top 10:
10: The Economist
The Economist, which for historical reasons I don’t pretend to understand still classifies itself as a newspaper, has one of the strongest marketing brands in the industry. It’s partly based on its savvy, sassy advertising, and partly on its pointed, pithy front covers – a trademark almost as valuable as Private Eye’s speech bubbles.
This example, from last year’s post-general election issue, captured perfectly – both in its headline and choice of picture – the winding Mr Blair was dealt by the British electorate.
9: Daily Mail
There’s something wonderfully old school about this Daily Mail cover, which, though it dates from 1918, seems somehow a timeless, aspic-preserved emblem of the paper’s xenophobic weltenschaung.
8: Bristol Evening Post
I loved the knowing under-statedness of the Bristol Evening Post’s announcement of Charles and Camilla’s decision to tie the knot – this is chief-subbing of the very best kind.
7: Daily Star
Bit of a cheat this one, as it’s not a front page – but it’s just too good not to include. The context…
Back in 2001, Chris Morris’s sublimely satirical Brass Eye paedophile special (one of the finest ever achievements of British television) caused a storm of outrage, with the tabloid press condemning Channel 4’s “unspeakably sick” exploitation of minors.
The rank hypocrisy and cant of the tabloids was graphically illustrated by this Daily Star juxtaposition: a nudge-nudge-phwoar-corr story about the then 15 year-old Charlotte Church, opposite some fake moral outrage railing against Brass Eye.
6: Daily Mirror
I went to bed about 3 am on 3rd November, 2004, utterly depressed. My early hopes that Senator Kerry would edge President Bush – infamously shared by top pollster, Mori’s Bob Worcester: “I’m Bob Worcester, it’s 2am, and I am calling it: it’s President Kerry!” – were soon dashed, as the exit polls were overtaken by the real results.
The Mirror’s front page is grossly unfair in it’s anti-Americanism, but somehow it got to the nub of the incredulity many of us felt that Dubya could have won his first election and second term.
When Jonathan Aitken armed himself with the “simple sword of truth and trusty shield of British fair play” to take the fight to The Guardian – and its allegations that he had enjoyed, and not declared, the hospitality of an Arab businessman while the UK’s defence procurement minister – he perhaps did not anticipate it would end his career in public life.
This was a front page that came to symbolise the fall of John Major’s limping, drowning, dismal government.
4: Chicago Daily Tribune
One of the most infamous newspaper cock-ups of all time – the Chicago Daily Tribune anticipated Bob Worcester’s red face by half a century, calling (along with most other media pundits) the 1948 US presidential election for Thomas Dewey. Governor Dewey lost to President Harry S Truman by over two million votes.
The New York Post had its own mini-Dewey moment a couple of years back, when it confidently proclaimed Senator Kerry had chosen Dick Gephardt as his Veep running mate for the 2004 election. That same day, John Edwards’ selection was announced.
3: Daily Express
When I first saw this Daily Express front page, I assumed someone had photo-shopped it as a satirical piss-take; or, alternatively, that it had been accidentally generated by the Daily Mail-o-matic website.
But no, this is the genuine article, and symbolises the luridly shameful and racist depths to which this once decent newspaper is happy to sink. Truly sickening.
2: The Sun
To choose just one Sun front-page is actually quite tricky. Whatever else might be said about it as a newspaper, it’s sensationally cheeky headlines have proved extremely effective: from ‘Freddie Starr ate my hamster’, to ‘Gotcha!’ (the sinking of the Belgrano), to ‘Zip me up before you go go’ (George Michael’s arrest), to ‘Up yours! Delores’.
But this is perhaps the one that came to symbolise, not only the Currant Bun’s finger-on-the-zeitgeist, but also the political power it could wield (or at least be perceived to wield, which can sometimes amount to the same thing).
1: The Independent
My winner, though, is The Independent’s response to the publication of The Hutton Report in January, 2004. Clearing its entire broadsheet front page of text and images, it simply read, in small font, ‘Whitewash?’ (One of their readers wrote in to congratulate them on their boldness, but expressed surprise they had felt the need to qualify the headline with a question mark.)
These days, we are used to the Indy’s screaming, pleading front pages, which are too often at risk of becoming self-parodies. But this was among the first trenchant front pages it had run, at a time when its rivals were much more reluctant to brandish their opinions so visibly. Not only did it establish the Indy as Britain’s first quality ‘viewspaper’, but it provoked its competitors to retaliate in kind; an unfortunate development I think, yet its success cannot be ignored.