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Media : SEX! SCANDAL! TRIVIA! : Is this news? To Britons it is. Read all about it in the London tabloids, those feisty, irreverent purveyors of sin, society, sob stories--and occasionally even news. To millions of daily readers all over England, the mixture is irresistible.

May 15, 1990|JEFF KAYE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

LONDON — What to splash?

The morning is passing quickly, and the editors of the tabloid Daily Mirror can't find a story worthy of a screaming front-page headline--the "splash," in Fleet Street-speak.

"This is truly one of the worst days," says a perplexed Steve Lynas, the Mirror's news editor. He has already spent considerable time combing the news wires and dispatching reporters to chase down leads. Nothing looks promising.

Joan Collins says she wants to get out of Los Angeles and move back to London. The Mirror has photos of her lounging around her mansion. It'll make a nice spread inside the paper, but not on Page 1.

Police say they've identified a suspect in the George Harrison death threat case. But the Mirror splashed the story on the ex-Beatle when it first surfaced and wasn't going to do it again.

Critics of the government charge that poor people's homes are being repossessed in court cases that last less than 90 seconds. Lynas sends reporter Bill Akass off to observe some of the lightning foreclosures and to interview the dispossessed families. But it's unclear where these court cases take place, and it's already getting late in the morning.

Meanwhile, everyone wonders what they're planning in the newsroom of their archrival, the Sun.

It's another day in the Tab Wars, as Britain's brassy working-class papers fight a never-ending battle for scoops, readers and the catchiest splash.

The Daily Mirror and the Sun are not only the top tabloids, they're the biggest of all Britain's newspapers. While the daily circulation of each paper--the Mirror count includes the readers of its Scottish cousin, the Daily Record--hovers at around 4 million, the Sun has the edge. The biggest daily "broadsheet," or full-size paper, the Daily Telegraph, has a circulation of just over 1 million.

A smashing lowbrow success for owner Rupert Murdoch, the Sun is the place where the Page 3 girl was invented and continues today in all her toplessness.

The Daily Mirror, owned by media baron Robert Maxwell, dropped Page 3 girls as a regular feature some time ago, but by no means has the paper barred nudity from its pages.

"There's certainly no ban on long legs and slim figures," says Brian Bass, the Mirror's bow-tied assistant to the editor. "But we like to have them in the context of a story."

In this day's paper, the Mirror and most of the other tabs have just such a story--and accompanying photo. A nurse is filing a lawsuit because she caught a bad case of food poisoning in a hospital cafeteria. The illness allegedly caused her bust to shrink, ending her "lucrative" part-time career as a topless model. Her picture appears to have been taken before she caught the bug.

The tabs are racy, opinionated and purple, filled with tales of sex, crime and Hollywood. Human interest stories are a major staple, and there are always lots of contests. The tabs routinely run their front-page photos in color and sometimes print color inside as well.

Each page is crammed with stories, headlines, boxes, photos and drawings. "We never waste an inch of space anywhere," says Mirror Art Editor Ric Papineau. "You cram everything in to give it a feeling of newsiness. There has to be a feeling of energy about the paper."

In an industry where terseness counts in headline writing, the British tabloids are nevertheless in a class by themselves. Always short and punchy, their headlines descend at times into bursts of slang and shorthand that would leave a non-tabloid reader thoroughly mystified.

"Beats Rocked by Clash Backlash" (the Daily Mirror): A legal dispute between two rock 'n' roll groups, Beats International and the Clash.

"Sex-Swap Girl Tula in Wogan Show KO" (the Sun): A woman named Tula who underwent a sex change faints while waiting to appear on a television show hosted by Terry Wogan.

"Dog Women in Cat Fight" (the Mirror again): Two rival female dog breeders tussle at a canine competition.

"Sotheby's Ms. Gross Nets Her Piers of the Realm" (Today): Pamela Gross, secretary to the chairman of the Sotheby's auction house, will marry Piers Butler, son of Lord Mountgarret, thereby gaining a title.

Unlike American supermarket tabloids such as the National Enquirer, the British tabs contain serious news as well as more frothy fare. It's just handled differently than the treatment one finds in what the Brits call "the quality papers."

World and national events are generally encapsulated into a few paragraphs. The headlines are often larger than the stories. In headline shorthand, Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev is always "Gorby."

At the Mirror, the editors try to create a balance in the types of stories they present. "The story you do biggest is the one they're going to talk about in the pub that night," says Bass. "Then we put Gorbachev on Page 2 to make sure we've got him covered. Page 3 is always light-hearted and fun--the bride whose knickers fell down on the way to church, that sort of thing."

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