ANDREW NEIL ON MEDIA
The sensational – if probably predictable story that David Beckham had been playing away with a woman not his wife (allegedly, as the lawyers always insist at this stage) unsurprisingly broke in last Sunday�s News of the World, where such stories tend to break. It was also no surprise that the Monday tabloids all piled in with great gusto to produce extensive follow-ups. But scandal stories present a conundrum for the broad-sheets and compact quality press. They profess to be driven by a higher news agenda than mere tittle-tattle, even if the tit-and-tat involves the England football captain, his pop star wife and a privately educated beauty from Spain. It is a standard to which they should especially adhere when the real news includes Iraq boiling over into mayhem and the government on the ropes over immigration.
On the other hand, the quality press has a responsibility to inform its readers about what is happening in the world, even the trivial, and the sex scandal surrounding Posh and Becks is most certainly the happening of the moment for most Brits.
So a balance has to be struck: such stories need to be covered by the qualities but with decorum and a sense of proportion. Those who believe the broadsheets have been dumbing down in recent years will be surprised to learn that is exactly how the qualities have covered the latest dramatic twist in the Posh and Becks saga.
While the tabloids went to town, the broadsheets and their compact sisters remained restrained. Monday�s Times carried a low-key account of the story on page seven, properly devoting its front page to a scoop about a new survey on teenage promiscuity. The Independent was even more low key, running only a news-in-brief, while the Guardian couldn�t resist a page three picture story.
By yesterday the story had legs, with the emergence of what looked like staged pictures of Posh and Becks frolicking in the snow and copious details of the Spanish temptress. The tabloids lapped it up, but the qualities refused to pay the �20,000-a-pop photographer Jason Fraser was supposedly demanding for his happy family PR pictures.
Tuesday�s Guardian demoted the story to a couple of hundred words at the bottom of page eight, while the Times cleverly involved the annual conference of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (what do you tell the kids about a fallen hero?).
Among the serious newspapers the Daily Telegraph has devoted the most space to the story. On Monday it trailed it on page one and carried it on page three. Yesterday it carried a large P&B puff under its masthead and ran a news story, a feature and an (unfunny) editorial. But the Telegraph has a long tradition of delving into the middle market when required, which explains why it has always been Britain�s biggest-selling broadsheet.
As usual, the Daily Mail showed how the real middle market can have its cake and eat it: it splashed on the story Monday, then moved on yesterday to the rise in NHS bureaucrats – but wrapped P&B words and pictures around it, signposting readers inside to its mega-coverage.
Only the Financial Times has failed, so far, to publish a word about the story – and quite right too (there must be at least one Becks-free reading zone). But, overall, the qualities have confronted their dumbing-down critics with aplomb. They have kept their readers informed of the gossip but with taste and restraint while concentrating on far more important news. Precisely what quality papers in the modern world need to do.