THE TELLING VOICES by H. R. F. KEATING
AFEW weeks ago I attempted to show that newspapers are not precisely the straightforward news media that they generally give themselves out to be. But, in fact, if you stop for one moment and subject your daily paper to a bit of analysis, you will see that it does not even pretend to be chiefly concerned with news.
All sorts of other things go into those print-covered sheets. I did a count of my own preferred paper this morning. It had 26 pages all told. Only nine and a half of them—or about onethird — were devoted to plain news, and even these carried their share of advertisements. So perhaps we should talk
about our daily unnewspapers.
The jumble of other things in the papers gets only a very small share of attention when the pundits pronounce, and so it is well worth having a longish look at what there is there and asking how well its various parts are serving the prime object of communicating things of benefit to us.
Let us start with the traditional and immensely popular Letters to the Editor. And first we should note that the popularity is not to be despised. If the letters and a lot of the other bits and bobs in your paper entertain you at a quite unambitious level they are doing something for the common good.
But the letters, of course, do more. They sometimes bring to notice small evils and in consistencies, and they sometimes get them put right (though it's odd that you often have to wait two or three days for a factual answer the paper could have given there and then).
But a much more important function of the letter columns is that they form a most useful part of the Great Debate. The great debate js in continual session. It may, these days, be chiefly concerned with just how much you should browbeat a man to obtain information from him that may save a life and also with the difficult question of who is our neighbour in the part of Africa called Rhodesia.
But it is always a monster, complex and inclusive dialogue in which a people tries to decide what it ought to do. And letters to the editor, with their built-in factor of reflection time, are a prime part of the process.
Turn a page or two. City news. Ah, you say, you cheat, you failed to count that as being news. I did. I am prac
tically unrepentant. Most of the City news nowadays is so
much inflated unnecessariness.
And I can prove it. Look at a newspaper of 15 years ago. The City pages occupied only a very small proportion of their present acreages. So why the growth?
I suspect it is partly a deliberately encouraged appeal to the gambling spirit, so that papers which would hardly expect to number financiers in their readership still have their City page or pages. And partly I am sure the City "news," or gossip, is there to keep apart the City advertisements and the staff recruiting advertisements that go with them.
suppose if these help to pay for the papers they serve some useful purpose, but mostly they are no more than a sort of schoolboy jostling for prestige among the big companies of our society who should know better.
But if the City pages bulk large, the Sports pages bulk almost as large in some papers and larger in others. I know it is an unpopular view, but I am clear that we as a nation now put too much emphasis on sport.
When . you consider that almost all the newspaper coverage of the many branches of sport is purely concerned with the spectator point of view, that it is strongly linked with the encouragement of gambling and that, further, it cultivates personalities selected almost arbitrarily from players of all sorts, worthy and less worthy, then perhaps you will agree that something is decidedly wrong here.
Again I shall be accused of cheating in omitting sport from my count of the news content of your average paper. But to what extent is sports news, if you define news as a report of an event of some Significance? Very little. The thing about games is that they are games: they are frothed-up creations out of nothing (which is not to say they are not fun to play).
A sort of proof of the insubstantiality of sport can be found in the extreme paucity of novels dealing with the playing of a sport itself. As one who once tried to write fiction about croquet I can confirm that any game melts to a little sticky patch of deflated bubbles under the pen.
Perhaps the next bulkiest newspaper section are the Women's Pages. Much that is good here, in the attention devoted to what amounts to half of most of our lives, the home and its concerns. This is, if you like, the often neglected female half of the world as set against the striving, dangerous male half.
But this excellent reason for existence seems frequently to he thought too dull by the Women's Editors and writers. And so they are apt to puff air into everything that falls to hand as if they were using an egg-beater on every dish in the cook book.
And you get the typical Women's Page piece about the choice between two fur coats each costing £500, or, my personal favourite. the recommendation of that new maternity garment for "those terrible last two weeks of pregnancy."
In cookery columns you often get a similar morale-sapping emphasis on the exotic, and even in the gardening notes the same thing is to be found. It is unfashionable to recall that Greed is one of the seven deadly sins (indeed the whole catalogue is not at all okay) but greed is still an offence and our newspapers frequently, and symbolically, encourage it.
The Travel pages are one of the chief offenders. Travel broadens the mind, a little and occasionally. But it would be a mistake to think that much of what is written in travel articles really improves the reader's quality of life and appreciation of different ways of living. Most of it simply excites envy.
It is good for the tourist industry, and that is not a blemish, but otherwise I have grave doubts about how good it is for our national spiritual health.
Another department of the newspaper is, however, of considerable value to our general spiritual wellbeing, while also being good for the industries concerned. This is the Arts Page and the Books Page.
Both serve the function of spreading the word, and, though a proportion of what the arts do may be misguided, in general theatre, films, music and books are to our benefit. Yet they reach in the first instance only tiny audiences. Hence the immense value of the critics.
Let me quote on this the Pastoral Instruction on the Mass Media about the contemporary theatre. This, it says, "is, without doubt, an experimental workshop for the expression of new, daring and
challenging ideas about modern man and his predicament. The impact of all this goes far beyond the audience attending a particular play." Yes, and the start of the journey is the theatre critic's piece.
We have nearly covered the field. What remains? The chat columnists, the crosswords, the cartoons, the horoscopes. Not worth a whiff of grapeshot? 1 think they are.
They fulfil, to begin with, a praiseworthy purpose in that they entertain (but do the horoscopes do more? And worse I wonder). And in fact their role as entertainment leads us to a key point in thinking about the un-newspapers.
It is this. That the whole of our newspapers are in reality instruments of entertainment. even if the news and editorial comment are sometimes en tertainment of a high and grim order.
Newspapers are important because of this, but only important to a limited extent. This is a view I have Icing held, even when I was concerned every day in producing bits of newspapers. But 1 have recently had two neat confirmations of my belief.
First our old friend Marshall McLuhan, the "medium is the message" man. He says of your daily paper: "You read it in order to plunge, to involve yourself, in the communal bathtub. Nobody reads a newspaper intelligently or critically, "That's not what it's for. It's there for a communal sense of sharing something, for splashing around in. 'C'mon the water's fine.' " Well, in fact a few people do read newspapers intelligently, but there is substance in the point nevertheless.
And my second confirmation? While in the course of preparing this article I spent some depressing hours in my public library looking over the whole press field in case I was making my judgments on too limited evidence.
And what happened to the week-old papers as I laid them aside? They were snatched by other readers and devoured, just as happily as if they were hot from the press. Their news value was nil: apparently their entertainment value was as high as ever.