Thursday, 24 November 2011

Newspapers

The current enquiry into UK press practice is taking evidence that reveals disgusting and callous approaches to news-gathering and publishing. All to boost circulation. It's a scandalous, salacious news story in itself.

I have always since my teens been quite certain that newspapers exist solely to make money or political influence for their owners. And not at all to be a reliably impartial source of truth and knowledge. They have other functions too: as a mirror of contemporary society, as a marker of social status, and as a vehicle for mass advertising.

I don't know if the question is still asked, but back in 1970, at my two first and only job interviews, a key question was 'Which newspaper do you read?' and much depended on the answer. Back then 'The Times' or 'The Daily Telegraph' were safe replies. 'The Guardian' would suggest intelligence but also a degree of political awareness inappropriate to a minion in the vast and conservative Civil Service, and it was therefore a risky answer. There was of course no way of sitting on the fence by saying 'The Independent', which didn't then exist. These were all broadsheet newspapers. Tabloid-sized papers were all of much lower status, and not deemed to be the reading matter of potential high-fliers. You were career-dead if you claimed to read any of those. They were thought trivial and working-class. They defined your level in a world still ruled by a snobbish elite, and even if you landed a job, you would be regarded henceforth and forever as a mere worker ant. Such was the position of newspapers in British culture at the time.

Forty years on, and the crown has slipped. Is there a paper - or any well-known publication of national circulation - that still has an untarnished reputation? Any at all that you'd happily admit to reading regularly? They all seem like vassal states in a cruel and despotic empire, tainted not simply by who owns them, or who sets the tone, but by the sleazy basic practices of the news industry. What now distinguishes a news reporter or news photographer working for the popular press from a private detective?

But face another fact. If these papers could not be sold, if nobody bought them, the industry would not be as it is now. The paper-buying public fed the machine that hounded Princess Diana and so many others to destruction. You cannot point a finger at (for instance) the Murdoch family without admitting that people bought their products daily by the million, and that if their standards are wrong, then so are the standards of most of us. And that goes for the news-makers too: the reporters and writers of all kinds who gave the public what they wanted to read about. It may have been a cynical exercise in spoon-feeding, but the salacious diet was eagerly swallowed.

Apart from buying and reading 'The Listener' before its demise, I have not bought a daily or weekly newspaper for nearly thirty years. I wouldn't waste my money, and I certainly don't want to encourage the press as it has now become.

The three traditional uses for yesterday's newspaper were to wrap your fish and chips in it, to clean flies and other muck off your car windscreen with it, and (in poor or makeshift circumstances) wipe your bottom with it. There are better substitutes for all three nowadays. I suggest there are better substitutes for the newpapers that are presently being savaged but will no doubt survive. A brief radio news summary, or a news headline feed on your phone, might be much better for your information, understanding and peace of mind than a thousand weasel words on a printed page.

And this is quite apart from the issue of Saving the Planet. There are better uses for paper and chemicals. Ask yourself: if cast ashore on a desert island in a post-apocalyptic world, who would you like for companionship? A survival expert? An inventive genius with knowledge of agriculture? A doctor? A banker? A reporter?

4 comments:

  1. Always used to enjoy those times when I used the tube in the mornings. I'd get on, people would type me as some sort of hippie with rucksack, and then there'd be this odd WTF moment when I took out my daily paper and started to read it. Somehow my image didn't fit with the FT.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I think I mentioned my attitude regarding newspapers on Jane Fae's blog. I have never bought a newspaper in my life. In my teens I would read the occasional newspaper that my parents had bought and decided they were full of propaganda, sex, politics, sensationalism, lies and adverts. Now it appears (well it always did) they are underhanded too. I have no time for them.

    Shirley Anne xxx

    ReplyDelete
  3. When a teenager I delivered newspapers for a year to buy an airfare to Canada to spend the summer with relations.

    It was interesting to see who read what but "why" has foxed me to this day. I have been shown articles related to events I have been involved with and rarely was able to recognise the event from what was written!

    If they were by law compelled to be honest and true the jails would be even more full than they are at present.

    Saved me a fortune, since the change of printing to colour the paper is now useless for cleaning windows, no absorbency!!

    ReplyDelete
  4. My grandmother always read the Mail and my father the Telegraph. Perhaps I look back through rose-coloured spectacles, but both newspapers seemed more balanced, more responsible, in those days.

    Maybe it is as circulation figures have dropped that they feel the need to sensationalize and create so-called 'news' of their own.

    Sadly, I fear that what has happened to the newspapers is happening now to TV news - or is it only I who finds some of the BBC's news output unwatchable? And from Fox News, good Lord preserve us!

    ReplyDelete

This blog is public, and I expect comments from many sources and points of view. They will be welcome if sincere, well-expressed and add something worthwhile to the post. If not, they face removal.

Ideally I want to hear from bloggers, who, like myself, are knowable as real people and can be contacted. Anyone whose identity is questionable or impossible to verify may have their comments removed. Commercially-inspired comments will certainly be deleted - I do not allow free advertising.

Whoever you are, if you wish to make a private comment, rather than a public one, then do consider emailing me - see my Blogger Profile for the address.

Lucy Melford