Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Jack the Ripper and the Birth of the Tabloid Press

1888: A Jack the Ripper Novel is available to buy from Amazon now

Jack the Ripper has proven a fruitful stimulus for writers over the years, to the extent that the field of fiction on the case has become a crowded place, even spawning its own subgenres within the story, such as modern day Ripper novels, supernatural Ripper novels and perhaps most ubiquitously, Sherlock Holmes investigates the Ripper novels.

The first idea I had for my book, which would hopefully allow the story to stand out on its own and tell a different tale, was rather an odd one. Originally, there was to be no Jack the Ripper and the canonical five victims would each be murdered by a different person.

The figure of the Ripper itself was to be an invention of the contemporary press, so eager to report on the killings that they created him themselves, or at least the idea of him. In many ways this was quite similar to my first book, The Devil's Walk, where the real threat is not the event itself, but the reaction to it; and how an invisible enemy can cause widespread hysteria.

This couldn't work. Nobody wants to read a Jack the Ripper novel which doesn't even include the man himself and the entire concept became somewhat preposterous, (there is a good reason to suspect that Liz Stride was not a Ripper victim, but then, there is also good reason to suspect that Martha Tabram was.)

What this stage of my research did help with, was making me acutely aware of how the press operated at the time - and how the birth of the tabloid on the streets of London would change British journalism from the time of the autumn of terror to the Leveson Inquiry.

It was this research that shaped the form of my novel more than anything else. The short, sensationalist articles mirrored the reportage style of the time and came to mirror the chapters of my book; each instalment was meant to be like peering through a window into a world you were not meant to see, full of salacious behaviour, scandal and of course, that staple of every tabloid paper, sex.

The term tabloid was born around 1888, but initially to describe a small type of pill available at Buroughs Wellcome Company - a London pharmaceutical manufacturer that would later become GlaxoSmithKline. The earliest record of it being applied to newspapers comes from 1901 and it's easy to see how this easily swallowed tablet came to refer to that most digestible form of journalism.

In 1888, the only newspaper predominantly featured is "The Star." This was a real paper from the age but every article featured in the course of the novel is either a complete fabrication, or a rewritten version of the original. The reason for this was simple, I wanted a paper that had the authentic ring of the age, but also articles that referred directly to the story I was telling. So wild was the speculation of these news sources that it was very hard to locate articles that reported what had actually happened, rather than baseless accusations and condemnation of the police.

The other reason that I used "The Star" is because it is the only paper from the time that really had its comeuppance. Pizer sued the publication that year for libel and won what was probably a substantial amount.
The biggest change in journalistic ethics during this time was pioneered by "The Star." In lieu of any actual events to report upon, coverage became speculation, rumours were recounted as facts and every terrible detail was covered with terrible relish.

Perhaps the most damning example of this lapse in standards are the allegations that a great number of the two hundred or so letters handed to the police over the  course of the crimes, came from journalists themselves - who were literally creating the news only to cover it later on.

The autumn of 1888 would change the standard of British journalism forever. To look back over the records of media coverage of the crimes is to find pages and pages of daily reportage that amounts to next to nothing. For the first time, journalism was no longer dictated by what had actually happened, but by what the public wanted.

This stain continues to blight the papers of today, with allegations of phone hacking, stolen emails and the shadowing of celebrities by journalists who are eager to feed an insatiable public what it craves - stories of missing white girls, celebrity breakups and murder.

This approach clearly worked. Perhaps the most depressing aspect of reading the real "Star" articles is how often they are celebrating another day of their "greatest ever distribution."

Narrative stories and editorial comment took over from news coverage and it is a trend which continues even now. This depressing, distressing culture of gutter journalism is one way in which Jack the Ripper continues to haunt British culture to this day.

Yours truly,
Charlie Revelle-Smith.

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