Press scandals and controversies can make people long for the good old days, when newspapers were dignified and reporters were respectable. But the good old days weren't quite as good as some people imagine. The respectable Victorian era was the height of sensationalist, dishonest journalism in Britain.
Papers for the people
Inexpensive newspapers had existed for over a century by the mid-1800s, but it wasn't until 1842 that the definitive popular London paper, the Illustrated London News, was founded. By the 1850s, it was selling hundreds of thousands of copies every week at sixpence an issue. The Illustrated London News covered world affairs, crime, public affairs, travel and other subjects with readable prose and high-quality engravings. But the ILN, although aimed at a mass market, was not a true tabloid.
The first genuine British tabloid was the Illustrated Police News, founded in 1864 as an attempt to emulate the success of the ILN. Unlike its more respectable inspiration, however, the Illustrated Police News focused squarely on crime and violence, the gorier the better. Unlike the more prestigious ILN, the IPN retailed for just a penny an issue.
A steady diet of brutality
The editors -- and readers -- of the Illustrated Police News delighted in tales of violence above all. If the week's news failed to provide an axe murder, stabbing or gunfight in Britain, they would travel further afield for stories of battles, massacres and tragedies in other countries. Headlines followed a gleeful formula: "A Horrible Crime," they proclaimed, or "Shocking Suicide at Crystal Palace." "Horrible Scene at a Wake" competed for page space with "Dreadful Murder and Suicide."
Providing readers with tales of violence and grue proved lucrative for the IPN. Within only a few years of its founding, it was selling 100,000 to 200,000 copies of each issue. If a particularly savage crime prompted a special edition, circulation could climb as high as 600,000. The paper sold especially well outside London, with high sales in growing cities like Birmingham or Manchester.
The floodgates open
The IPN was far from the only sensationalist London paper. Many other inexpensive crime-focused papers, including Famous Crimes and The Police Budget, existed, while even more respectable newspapers like The News of the World and Lloyd's Weekly Newspaper devoted significant space to crime and violence.
Accuracy not a concern
When news was particularly slow, the writers of the IPN and other tabloids were not averse to inventing some. Tales of sea monsters and murderous gorillas abounded, as did stories of unusual accidents such as the tale of a hot-air balloon pilot attacked by a crocodile, which was published in 1878. The mysterious figure known as Spring-Heeled Jack was another popular feature.
Foreigners are funny
Victorian tabloids didn't rely solely on horror and blood to appeal to their audiences. They knew they had to throw in some jokes to keep things varied. In keeping with the spirit of the age, these jokes were frequently at the expense of foreigners, minorities and women. Headlines included side-splitters such as "A Farcical Jew," "A Zulu in a Police-Court" and, somewhat less offensively, "Remarkable Collection of Cats."
Jack the Ripper
The Victorian tabloid's finest -- or at least most profitable -- hour came in 1888 when a series of brutal murders in the Whitechapel area shocked London. The killings, which would later be attributed to the murderer known as Jack the Ripper, were front-page news in the illustrated papers. Indeed, the London tabloids may have created much of the mythology surrounding the killings.
Making the news
The Jack the Ripper case featured an unprecedented level of media exposure. Unused to being so closely questioned by journalists, police tended to stonewall, leaving the papers to print unsubstantiated rumours and speculation. This contributed to the hopeless muddle the investigation became. It's even been suggested that the letter that introduced the name "Jack the Ripper" was a hoax written by a journalist.
The end of an era
Many of the Victorian tabloids lasted well after the Victorian period. The IPN only ceased publication in 1938, on the eve of the Second World War. In some ways, their decline from their Victorian heyday was a result of their own success, as mainstream newspapers began to appeal to the same market. The Illustrated London News, grandfather of the movement, continued as a weekly until 1971, finally closing its doors in 2003.