The ritual of the daily newspaper
THERE has been a shut down in Fleet Street; but it is now over and done with and we are once more in possession of our indispensable daily papers.
Or ar.e they indispensable? Since the first Fleet Street closure some 15 years ago, when being paperless was a new and terrible experience, we have become more accustomed to short periods without the ritual of the daily newspaper and have perhaps occasionally suspected that they are not quite so important as we believed.
But to judge by the headlines a fortnight ago when the current crisis was brewing one would have thought that a Britain without daily newspapers was 'a calamity comparable to devaluation at the very least. Yet to my mind the loss of this particular voice among the many telling voices may be a small hardship but is not a great disaster.
I remember in adolescence reading somewhere cf Chesterton and Belloc going for a newspaper-free holiday, and asking myself with hot anxiety whether, with the world in its present state, it would still be justifiable to take such a daring step.
I suppose growing up means learning that the world is always in such a desperate state, that if it isn't a general war it is simply the wider mischiefs of peace. And so now, whenever I go on holiday, I trot along to the newsagent, blithely put in my cancellation and spend some weeks without so much as looking at a paper.
But the Fleet Street barons and editors wouldn't like that. It is from their lips and presses that we are told that newspaper reading is a duty. It is almost a requirement of citizenship. Without million sales for the national dailies democracy could not flourish.
And, of course, until comparatively recently, there was no one to challenge them in their telling. If we wanted opinions on current affairs with a sort of authority behind them there was precious little besides the newspapers to garner it from. And so with trumpets loud they told us that they were the Fourth Estate of the Realm and that what they said mattered.
Myth of the 'lead story'
That, when you look at it in today's light, seems a marvellous piece of short-sighted mirror-gazing. Nor is it the only example of that posture we get from our serious national newspapers. Note that I am confining myself to the serious Press. The popular lot subscribes only occasionally to the creed of selfdelusion with which the quality papers constantly hypnotise themselves.
Let us look at a few examples of it. Take, for instance, the myth of the "lead story." The lead, in case you have never realised it, is the bit of news they put in the most prominent position on Page One. What does it really matter which piece of news you happen to choose on any particular night? Not a bit. It doesn't alter the facts just because you put them in one place on a page rather than another. But the people who make our quality Press are
unable, mirror-fixated as they are, to believe this.
To them the choice of the lead is a decision that affects millions. Is such-and-such a piece of news worthy to be held up as so world-altering that it can be given the glory of being the lead?
Anxiously at round II p.m. they seize on the earliest editions of their rivals, obtained by special arrangement, to see what choice others have made in this key decision. Often they hastily change their lead to agree with their rivals, and on occasion their rivals simultaneously change to agree with them.
A similar delusion from which our serious national papers suffer is that there is always some as yet unknown news to he unearthed. There is always a scoop there, they believe, and so we poor readers are bamboozled into thinking that important, democracyaffecting things are happening when in reality the higher echelons of Fleet Street are just scratching their hysteria.
And in case you feel I am
being a little crankish, let me
call in an experienced senior
newspaperman to endorse me. Anthony Lewis, London correspondent of the New York Times, says tersely of the British Press ,"They want scoops. Even when there are none to be found."
How are these scoops discovered, then? By the manufacture of what someone once called "soft news" as opposed to "hard news." A soft news story can easily be detected by headlines containing verbs such as "may" or "looms" or "faces" or by the presence in an opening paragraph of the word "inevitable" or, even better, "near-inevitable," You read; symptoms of alarm disturb you; only if you fight your way to a cold analysis can you relax and say "Perhaps 'near-inevitable' means just 'It might happen.'"
A paper—and I am speaking of the serious ones—seems to feel that an item of news is made more reliable and important if no other paper carries it. Of course, if you think about it, precisely the opposite is the case. But the rivalry bug has bitten so deep in Fleet Street that there is no curing this delusion.
Similarly enormous sums are spent squeezing into the papers pieces of news that come in late, and often an item that has seemed at the beginning of a night to be important and informative (and indeed was so) will be frenziedly jettisoned for a triviality that happens to have gone unreported till after two o'clock in the morning. News, we see, is highly relative.
It might be expected that a medium of communication that exists ostensibly to tell us with authority what is happening from day to day would be wonderfully responsive to small shifts in the great complex pattern of the world. Not so. Alas. Newspapers are tautly tradition-bound.
Let me give you one instance : the categories of correspondent which papers employ, thus to an extent dictating the categories of things they report. These were laid down more or less as long as 100 years ago, Diplomatic Correspondent, Political Correspondent, Naval Correspondent : the names have the patina of age.
From time to time papers do add to their stock, and indeed sometimes jump on the bandwagon with happy haste (Are there Ecology Correspondents? I suspect so.) From time to time, too, a type of correspondent ceases to be. Ecclesiastical Correspondents are pretty danger-prone nowadays.
But does the list of correspondents ever reflect reality? With almost always only a single looked-down-on chappie to cover all Science? I think not. With a Philatelic Correspondent but never a Philosophy
Correspondent? Hidebound and trivial. And provincial.
Our papers are sometimes attacked for giving a lot of attention to home news and forgetting almost completely that some parts of the world exist. It is true they do this. But 1 feel it properly reflects real attitudes. Our neighbours are those whom we can see.
Where I quarrel with the serious Press is in its extraordinary belief that what matters in London matters all over the British Isles, In France seven million copies of provincial papers are sold for every two and a half Parisian ones. Here the London-based papers go everywhere, and— which is serious—take their London-based views with them.
Paltry efforts are made to hob the knee in the direction of the provinces in the shape of northern and Scottish editions. But these carry nothing more than different sports items and a certain number of different bits of news.
All the weight of editorial opinion and all the weight of emphasis in the selection of what news is made most important comes from the London opinions of London provincials.
It comes from men (and mean men: Fleet Street is as much against women priests in its temples as ever is the Church, but without her reasons) who get their opinions from their fellow newspapers and from a small circle of other top Fleet Street people, leavened only by a certain amount of lobbying from the politicians and their tight London world. It is these circumstances that have also blinded the newspapers to the existence of television.
Short-sighted on television
Indeed it was only grudgingly that television was written about at all in the serious papers, and even now it is given only the sort of coverage that goes to a good orchestral concert in one of the London halls. This illustrates as well as anything the newspapers' elephantine short-sightedness about the whole impact of television.
Ott the news pages the simple assumption is that there is no such thing. Headlines are written as if no reader will have any inkling about the piece of news. Whereas almost the whole population will have known about it from their TV sets two or three hours before anyone began to dream up the headline.
And the reason for this is simple : the people who make the decisions about each day's paper, the 'back bench as they are called, naturally work at night and therefore hardly see any television themselves.
But to continue our catalogue of short-sightedness. Have you ever considered the degree to which an Establishment point of view is engrained in your daily newspaper? In the thundering editorials you would expect it and indeed could welcome it.
The radicals are not always automatically right. But ought support for an Establishment view to leak over into what the papers boast are their unslanted columns of news, rigorously separated from comment?
It does, though. Look at the account of any strike in your quality newspaper. Unless. you read the Financial Tunes,
whose specialised audience needs to know exactly what is going on in the industrial field, then the chances are that you will find there is a plain bias in favour of the employers' side.
"'Their comments are at decidedly greater length than any comment by the actual strikers, especially where the action is unofficial. Yet not every unofficial strike is without justice on its side.
Indeed this establishment bias in the "unbiased" news columns goes even further. It takes the form of a playingdown of the grimmer and less hopeful sides of society. Stories about violence we get in plenty—perhaps because violence has its own appeal too complex to analyse here. But where are the stories about the homeless, the meths drop-outs, the really poverty-stricken? An incident involving a methsdrinker is "not news" : an incident involving a young man who happens to be a lord is. Some stories about the lower regions of our social structure are to be found, certainly. But are they found in anything like the proportion these sores on the body politic warrant? That they are not is perhaps the most damning indictment of the serious Press.
I have listed a fairly formidable catalogue of sins. Are there no redeeming features? Of course there are. But the Press has told us about them too often for me to need to mention them here.
Yet even then some of the virtues so much trumpeted are perhaps not as worthy of praise as is claimed. 1 have already doubted just how much of all the news we get we really need, if we set our standards of needing a little higher than we usually do. If we read our papers only for what we absolutely had to know, then we would be a country with not dailies but weeklies, and thin enough weeklies at that.
No, we read the papers for many other reasons than the need for accurate information about current events. What these reasons are I hope to discuss at some future time, but meanwhile it is perhaps a sufficient step towards clearing away a certain amount of misinformation (or hypocrisy, or untruths) to remember that the One thing we do not get from our newspapers is a true and proper account of what goes on.