Still, if its all about stories, what sort of stories do we want the press to be telling? The sad answer, I suspect, if you democratise the selection process, is that what the public wants is not far off what it gets – with a fair dash of that being served up by the Sun and the Daily Mail.
Just dabbling ever so briefly in the online pages of the latter, the lead story at this precise moment is about Kate Middleton’s wardrobe choices. Then we have tragic loss in Afghanistan. Bad boy chef Jamie whatsit ranting at people who suggest he might just be overweight. How vegetables can make you look cute. And loads and loads of ooo, isn’t it awful.
Where’s the “news”?
Basically: its full of stories about how various unspecified “they’s” – from benefit scroungers to lefties to politically correct immigrant asylum benefit squeakers are doing better than us, somehow, somewhere. In essence, its bottom shelf magazinery puffed up into newspaper size.
Sometimes, the “stories” have national significance – some of the recent trans stuff definitely does: stories about gay marriage are also matters of national import.
But actually, if you are brought up on the middle-to-high-brow of the Grauniad or Times, the idea that all these dead trees lining your newsagent’s rack of a morning carry the same name – “newspaper” – must be quite bizarre. They are not really about “news”: not, that is, if you genuinely consider news to be about government and international relations and science and the like.
No. They are mostly stuffed to the gills with stories. There to entertain, titillate and sometimes, almost by accident, highlight issues of public policy.
Public interest? Nah!
Now there’s a problem, right off. Just because it interests the public…does that mean its in the public interest? Oh, shit! That’s a meaningless distinction, mostly thought up by too clever lawyers and newspaper editors.
Jamie Oliver: public figure, ergo “public interest”. Killer suing prison chief: sort of pi. Vegetables making you look cuter: defo, cause that’s about health. As for trans individuals getting seven grand out of the MOD (out of a budget of way over £100bn): well, its public funds, innit. Ergo public interest.
Where’s the story?
In part this brings me back to what I said to Hel after the first blog on this topic today. Regulation is very difficult. One of the commonest things I hear, both as press critic and as press member is: “that’s not a story” – occasionally tempered by “but this IS a story”. What DOES that mean? As far as an editor is concerned, a thing is a story if its likely to turn on the readers. OK. Turn on readers PLUS titillate their political proclivities. And with click counts and the like nowadays, we know exactly what does tend to titillate.
Being told something is NOT a story is something commonplace: a practice I endured several times a week when I was doing current affairs stuff, from government departments and official bodies determined to cover up their inadequacy. So much so, one mostly just ignores it. Half the time it means something to hide. The rest, if there’s nothing there, it will go away of its own accord.
Funny, though, of late, to find a range of LGBT organisations trying the same trick! Nothing to see here – even when, maybe, they are doing something on behalf of their constituencies those folk would very much like to know.
Of course, story is not some monolithic thing. As Jennie Kermode commented today: story also intertwines with ideas of balance and centre. So where, on domestic violence, balance might once have been between those arguing it was and it was not an issue, the centre has moved and in many spaces, the argument is now between those arguing specific measures do/do not make a difference.
And the WAY a story is told changes it: gender interventions for five-year olds are mostly about asking for tolerance – not starting down the road to transition. Not that you’d know that if you read the national press.
Don’t ask me…
Again, I outline an issue, then step back and scratch my head. Tighten the screw much/at all, and I can think of half a dozen genuine good exposés of government practice that wouldn’t have been written (just by me: now multipy by hundreds of journalists).
Leave the ratchet where it is…and news is little more than an assembly of stories, written with titillation in mind.
The public interest defence doesn’t help much. Not sure how regulation would, either.