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June 16, 2006

Lilian Pizzichini on how the back page took over the front page: Front Page: Celebrating 100 Years of the British Newspaper 1906-2006 at the British Library

Posted by Lilian Pizzichini

Front Page: Celebrating 100 Years of the British Newspaper 1906-2006
British Library, London
25th May - 8th October 2006

The potential for newspaper front pages to create, sustain and destroy myths is the most striking note of this exhibition. It is also the first note sounded. An image of Wayne Rooney collapsing in pain over a broken metatarsal is the first on display. At life-size it introduces, without words none are needed the theme of sport. With this image, the importance of sport to our lives and to newspapers' lives is shown.

There isn't always drama in politics. There is always drama in sport. There's always some mega-tournament somewhere or other that cries out to be covered by our man on the touchline. So if I can interpret the significance of this image, and, being a literary type, I haven't followed the highs and lows of Rooney's career, then I guess everyone in the country could write their own picture caption to accompany it. It needs no introduction. As such, it works perfectly as an introduction to this exhibition. Ironically, for an exhibition focussing on typefaces, fonts and headlines, it needed no words.

It wasn't always thus. Sport was not always a lucre-laden branch of the entertainment industry. It didn't always spawn celebs. Until about 20 years ago, sports journalism in Britain was confined to the "toy department"; three pages at the end of the paper, light relief after the serious stuff. In what is one of the most intelligently packaged 48-page tabloid give-aways I've ever seen, Paul Hayward of the Daily Mail explains in an article on the last page (natch) the changes he has seen in this branch of journalism. Or, how the back page took over the front page.

It was television wot done it (excuse the Sun pun):

Modern newspapers continue to provide exhaustive detail for their readers: scores, fixtures, league tables and the like. But the ubiquity of television and internet has liberated sports journalism to analyse, reflect and describe in a way that a TV camera cannot.
He's so right. Even I bought a newspaper this morning to sift through the opinions of last night's England match. I wanted to know what happens next; which strikers Sven will put in the starting line-up. Will it be Owen or Crouch? What about Lampard's yellow card? Does that mean he can't be risked in the next game? He's my favourite (i.e. the best-looking), and, bizarrely, I find myself caring. Newspaper pundits can provide all this sweaty analysis, giving us all something to bond over at the local caff.

Interestingly, the Sunday Pictorial had an idea of what was to come back in 1923, specifically the 29th April. The front page for that day captured in storyboard form the storming of the first FA Cup Final held at Wembley Stadium. Up to 200,000 people stormed the 127,000-capacity stadium, spilling on to the pitch. Kick-off was delayed for 45 minutes as the pitch was cleared. I remember my grandfather telling us how, at 10 years old, he was mesmerised by the sight of a policeman's white horse clearing the crowd. Now I have a little more understanding of what it was he actually saw. In fact, now I doubt if he was even there. But it doesn't matter. He believed that he saw it, because by the time he told us he'd seen it, he'd repeated the same story many times.

The press later referred to the 1923 Cup Final as the "White Horse Final", owing to white police horse, Billy, ridden by PC George Scorey, who managed to clear the crowds allowing the game to begin. A black and white photograph makes Billy stand out among the grainy, whey-faced, grey-garbed men, emphasizing the exaggerated reports of how he single-handedly managed the overflow. But look closely and you see several dark horses with him. Billy wasn't alone. But he was a hero. And my grandfather, always one for a tall story (as a professional conman, he had to be), was quick to jump on Billy's bandwagon. This is the first front page featured and it testifies to the power of newspapers to create myths.

Propaganda is another function of the newspaper. Still on the theme of sports, the next front page is from the Daily Express. In 1945, Roger Banister's achievement of 3 minutes 59.4 seconds was compared to Hillary's conquest of Everest.

On Fleet Street,
the caption explains,
every sports writer claimed to have been trackside at Oxford when Banister changed athletics forever.
On their front page, the Express made sport news in its own right. Dramatic photographs accompanied Banister's own account of his victory, plus a sidebar report breaking the mile into four, nail-biting laps. The decision to fill the entire page with the event was unusual as most nationals carried a small column on the front page, with more details at the back. But this was the beginning of the Cold War era so a British success story, reinforced by a subhead
British victory beats world
would be reassuring to readers. Column five carries a story headlined
Be Friends, says Molotov
reporting a dinner given by Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden for the Soviet delegates to the Geneva conference. During this dinner, the reporter was pleased to note, Molotov said that the Brits were easier to deal with than the Yanks, though not in those words. Infuriatingly, the story is continued on page 2, column 5.

Sport has always served a function, and it is usually to do with our need for heroes and a belief in our own greatness. So much depends on a metatarsal attached to a man who signs autographs for prostitutes happily setting himself up to be a front-page scandal with the words,

I shagged you, Wayne Rooney.
I'm going to keep with the sports theme, since the rest of the exhibition is as one would expect. The British Library displays the front pages thematically. The themes cover newspapers' favourite subjects: royalty, scandal, conflict, murder, politics and, (don't forget Wimbledon's coming), sport. So we get the Hindenberg, Hitler, the Falklands, Margaret, Diana, Profumo, Hindley, Brady, Bentley, Christie, Huntley and Shipley, the Suez Crisis, the Hutton Enquiry, a clutch of assassinations, amongst other attention-grabbing headline stories.

My personal favourite is the Daily Mail's summation of the Stephen Lawrence case, featuring photographs of the five men charged and then acquitted:

Murderers: the Mail accuses these men of killing. If we are wrong, let them sue us.
Audacious, and an acknowledgement that Lawrence was one of their own - and the men who killed him beyond the pale.

Back to the exhibition and there is an interactive area where children are encouraged to design their own front pages and then rush to the presses to watch them roll. The children I saw were having a wonderful time arguing over headlines, inventing stories, reminding me of various backbenches on which I have subbed. If you have children, take them to this exhibition. It's a lesson in history, in media, in the world in which we live, and they'll enjoy themselves.

Back to this review, I feel it should match the concerns of its subject in being time-sensitive, Also, judging from the number of articles that have been posted on the World Cup, whether pro- or anti-, I'm guessing this readership can't get enough of it, and I'm here to sell papers. So back to the front page we go.

On 7th July 2005 the usually sober Independent's front page was a wraparound special edition with a single photograph covering the entire front and back pages. The occasion was London's victory over Paris in hosting the 2012 Olympic Games.

Britain's Golden Day
was the same day London was struck by four terrorist bombs. The irony is terrible, the story isn't there yet, it doesn't need to be: the headline and the image say it all.

Lilian Pizzichini's first book, Dead Men's Wages, published by Picador, won the 2002 Crime Writers Association Gold Dagger for Non-Fiction. She is currently writing a biography of the novelist Jean Rhys for Bloomsbury.


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