Sunday, March 06, 2011


There was once a young journalist. Each morning, as he set out for work, he worried: "What will I do if I get to the office and find out that there is no news to report." He confided his concern to a more experienced reporter. "No news?" replied the old hack "Wow, what a story that would be! I can just imagine the headlines FIRST DAY IN HISTORY - ABSOLUTELY NOTHING HAPPENS"

Political nerds on both sides sometimes talk as if they would like all newspapers to be Soviet style press releases for the Ministry of Propaganda. Papers, they say, should report the facts about what a brilliant job the Prime Minister is doing, and nothing else. That's what ordinary people really want to read about. Tony Blair, the disgraced former Prime Minister, affected to believe that ordinary people were just not that interested in the intrigues and power struggles within his government, and certainly not his disagreements with Gordon Brown, of which there weren't any anyway. What they really wanted to read about was what percentage of what New Labour was rolling out year on year compared with the last seasonally adjusted Conservative Government.

But this is foolishness. Newspapers are about news; and news means stories, narratives, things which are worth repeating. Newspapers are incredibly selective about what they report: but then, so are you. You don't tell your friends if you went into Sainsbury's and saw a lady with a small child, but you do tell them if you went into Sainsbury's and saw a lady with a small rhinoceros.

Stupid people often say "I wish the papers would report more good news". But good news is not "a story". How could it be? NO-ONE IN BRISTOL HAS BUBONIC PLAGUE might be very good news, but it isn't a very good news story.  BLACK DEATH STRIKES MONTPELIER --wow! what a story that would be.

Dog bites man is not a story. Man bites dog is a story. I made that example up all by myself.

It may possibly be true that in relatively recent times, "politics" (stories about the rich and powerful), "society" (stories about the rich and famous) and "sport" (stories about the rich and stupid) have come more and more under the umbrella of "celebrity news". It may be true that current affairs and crime are increasingly reported in the language and style of a show-business gossip column. It may even be true that this is all the fault of Channel 4 and Big Brother.

It would be very surprising if murders and other sensational crimes were not reported in newspapers. You'd expect headlines that said: WOMAN DISAPPEARS, BODY FOUND, BODY IDENTIFIED, MAN ARRESTED, MAN CHARGED, MAN TRIED and MAN CONVICTED or ACQUITTED. But that's it. Everything else is sadomasochistic voyeurism. But increasingly, "murder" is treated as a sub-set of "celebrity news". Being murdered, like appearing on X-Factor, is a path to celebrity status. Along with all the pseudo-people that we have pseudo-relationships with, we need some pseudo-corpses to pseudo-blub over. When someone dead acquires a nick-name -- Little Jamie, Maddy, Lovely-Jo -- it's a safe bet that they've stopped being people and become a brand-names. They kept the Maddy brand going for a year. Tony Blair's success owed much to cynically positioning his product alongside the Little Jamie brand. The Diana-brand has come to its natural end, but the Kate-brand is even now being prepared for sacrifice.

Lovely-jo has stopped appearing in the newspapers because there is, er, no more news about her. And that's what you'd expect: things have returned to their normal state, in which a person who has passed away is remembered by, and mourned by, their family and friends -- the people who actually knew them -- and no-one else. Of course the rest of us are going to forget all about her. Why wouldn't we?

Daily Mail Woman doesn't understand that. If Lovely-jo's pictures is not appearing in newspapers, then it means Lovely-jo has been forgotten; if she has been forgotten, it means that she didn't matter, and Daily Mail Woman thinks Lovely-Jo matters an awful lot because she was pretty and liked posh pizza. Lovely-jo used to appear in the Daily Mail, like the important people. Now she is only on a police website. What can we do to promote the Lovely-jo brand?

Daily Mail Woman tries to retrace Lovely-jo's last movements. The easy way of getting from the flat where she may have died to the place where her body was found is by crossing Clifton Suspension Bridge. It is thought that the actual murderer must have taken a much longer route to avoid the security cameras on the bridge .

"Perhaps" says Daily Mail Woman, "He also wanted to avoid the 50p toll."

She has a very odd relationship with money, does Daily Mail woman. She has money for veggie burgers and pizzas, but no loose change to cross a bridge. She attempts to get across the bridge without paying her toll. She tries to put a button in the bucket, and (this is a comic master-stroke) she tells us which expensive shop the button came from. Still, they will not let her cross. The fee is, in fact, 50p.

Again, one asks: what does she imagine should have happened?

She visits the crime scene, and is surprised to find that there is no ceremony there. But how long should police stay at the scene of a murder?

She is surprised that no-one slows down outside the flat where Lovely-jo lived. How long does she think that cars should carry on slowing down for? (And do they only have to slow down outside the houses of people who have been murdered, or do they also have to slow down at houses where Mum has died tragically young of lung cancer?)

She is scandalized that the toll bridge won't let her pay 30p for a 50p fair. What does she think should happen?

That payment to cross a toll bridge should be optional, like a "pay what you can" night at the theater?

That the sign should say "50p, or 30p for people with the buttons off posh frocks"?

That the toll booth man should say "You go right ahead, you are a Daily Mail journalist"?

Or that, because there has been a murder in the town, all normal commerce should be suspended?


I think I know what is going on. Oh god, I think I know what is going on. When you are bereaved, you feel that the world has ended. This can easily turn into a feeling that the world ought to have ended: into anger against people who are carrying on as normal. How dare they just buy vegetables in the market as if nothing has happened! Most people recognize that this is just a feeling. King Lear didn't really think that the death of Cordelia was likely to make all the horses and dogs and rats drop dead in sympathy. W.H Auden didn't really think it at all likely that all the clocks and telephones would be switched off when his boyfriend died. It's a way of expressing rage: what English teachers used to call the pathetic fallacy. But the Liz Jones character is so controlled by her feelings that she effects to believe that normal life really will be suspended when a pretty white girl is killed, and that if it hasn't been, someone should damn well do something about it. It's the ultimate triumph (the ultimate caricature) of the "feelings over facts" believe system.

And finally, the master stroke. The most literally mad thing that has ever been said by anyone ever not excluding Mr Dave Sim:

"Isn't it interesting that you can snatch a young woman's life away from her in the most violent, painful, frightening way possible, take away her future children, her future Christmases, take away everything she loves, and yet there are elaborate systems in place to ensure you do not cross a bridge for only 30 pence?"

No, it isn't interesting. It isn't even a little a bit interesting. And there aren't any elaborate systems in place. There's a little gate. You pay your fare, the little gate opens, you drive through, the little gate closes. Do you imagine that little gate technology could be put to use stopping people being murdered? Or that every time someone wants to install a little gate or a little turnstile, they should be told, I'm sorry, you can't have a little gate, you can't have a little turnstile, people must be allowed to use your bridge, your road, your car park, your zoo for free because there are still sometimes murders and we don't always know how to stop them.

You want to stop rare birds becoming extinct, but Whatabout farm chickens?

You think my house-cats may get out and eat rare birds, but Whatabout the feral cats who need to be neutered?

You want me to pay 50p to cross the bridge, but Whatabout the lady who was murdered not five miles away?

In the 1950s, it fell to a particular sub-committee of Blackpool (or, it may be, Clacton or Brighton) Town Council to censor the seaside postcards: to decide whether a picture of a fat man, anxiously searching for a lost child and exclaiming "I can't find my little Willie" went beyond the realms of what could be sold in a decent holiday resort. The committee came up with the wheeze of showing all the cards to the mayor's wife. If the Lady Mayoress said that the post-card to be filthy, dirty and disgusting, it was adjudged to be a harmless bit of risque japery. But if she ever said "I don't see anything funny in that" then the card was ruled to be genuinely obscene, and banned.

Dirty jokes, sick jokes, bad taste jokes, "politically incorrect" jokes. The old Daily Mirror cartoons made it quite clear that Andy Capp regularly beat up his wife. This didn't mean that the readers were supposed to approve of domestic abuse -- any more than they were supposed to approve of drunkenness or laziness or blowing your wage packet on the dogs. Andy Capp wasn't a role-model: he represented the worst possible stereotype of a lower class Geordie.

It's people who are rather coy, not people who are completely uninhibited, who laugh at dick jokes and loo jokes. George Orwell said that the very smuttiness of the seaside postcards showed how very moral the lower orders were: if they didn't take marriage very seriously indeed then the idea of a nervous little man with an enormous fearsome wife surreptitiously glancing at a curvaceous blond in a bathing costume wouldn't be funny. But there's a line -- surely there must be a line -- that decent people don't cross. C.S Lewis -- who liked rude jokes well enough himself -- thought that some people told sex jokes because they were funny, and some people told sex jokes simply because it give them an excuse to talk about sex. The same might apply to other offensive jokes. It is possible that you really have thought of some way to make people laugh that just happens to involve taking the mickey out of some minority. But you'd better be very, very sure that you aren't merely using "it's funny" as a fig leaf to cover up a lot of bigoted rubbish that you, or your audience, really believe in. (The aforementioned Jimmy Carr seems to be to fall on one side of the line; the ghastly Jim Davidson on the other.) It's certainly inconceivable that anyone would draw, or even reprint, an Andy Capp wife-beating gag today.

So: assume I am right, and Liz Jones is a fictitious character -- a self-parody -- an Internet troll. Does that mean we can sit back and say "Well, that's all right then?"

Either someone sat in an office in London and imagined, with a terrible smirk on his face what Daily Mail Woman would do if she were asked to write about a murder.

Or else a real journalist, maybe really called Liz Jones, really walked around Bristol, really walked into Tescos, really picked up a Pizza and then, trying to be funny, or trying to give us the frisson of being shocked really wrote things like "This pizza proves that this dead woman, who I never knew, wanted to have a lovely life.

(Wanted to have a lovely life? Who doesn't, fuckwit, who doesn't? You might as well write "Finland Is A Land Of Contrasts".)

This is not reporting: this is voyeurism. Trying to get a laugh or some morbid, masturbatory sentiment out of the death of an actual human being who you, your paper, have turned into a commodity.

Am I offended? No.

Was I offended when I first read it? No.

Stunned disbelief would describe me feelings better. Horror. Not so much at the piece, but that there exists someone who would sink so low as to write such a thing.

So yes. Yes, I have very probably just wasted you time repeating at length the judgement I made when I first read the column.

"You utter shit."

Speaking of which -- Melanie Phillips:

update: I appear to have been unfair to Jim Davidson. not a phrase i ever expected to write


Steve H said...

Are you STILL banging on about this?

Andrew Rilstone said...

No. I'm banging on about something completley different.

matthew said...

>> Stupid people often say "I wish the papers would report more good news". But good news is not "a story". How could it be?

Well, sometimes the story is along the lines of "reported crime fell in 9 out of 10 categories", but the headline will tend to be "Burglary rates rocket". I don't see "overall crime rates fall" shouldn't be a story.

Helen Louise said...

I really can't quite believe that cartoon. I'm not acquainted with Andy Capp anyway, so wonder if that is the source of my confusion. Is there a context in which that cartoon would be even faintly amusing?

Re: Jim Davidson, not really sure what to think on that score. I'm intrigued by the obvious self-awareness of his play, but I do have to wonder

"In the play, my character is made to realise that he can't just carry on as he was," Davidson says, "but the question is whether he is genuinely remorseful or just faking it to be famous."

...Makes me wonder if, in fact, Davidson has taken a new line of open-mindedness and tolerance because it'll sell...

Also: "I talk about racist issues and I make fun of black people but I've never wanted to make it racist"

Er... I dunno, it's funny when a comedian like Shappi Khorsandi makes fun of Iranians, or Shazia Merza makes fun of Muslims... It's knowing and affectionate, in its way. Whereas middle-aged white comedian making fun of black people to make mostly white audiences laugh? That reminds me rather of... oh yeah, racism.

"the audience is asked to judge whether it is more acceptable to make fun of white people and Americans than black people and Asians."

Well, yes, and the reason's fairly obvious... mocking the majority or the privileged group is satire, mocking the downtrodden is bullying. There's obviously some ambiguous areas, like, say if a black comedian mocked 'white trash' - that might be racist, in its way... Anyway, apologies, I've spent longer commenting on your link than on your post :)

Steve H said...

***No. I'm banging on about something completley different.***

Then you'll have to forgive me. I gave up before I reached the end. There comes point at which, under the guise of moral indignation, some people do nothing more than give free publicity to the Mail. To me, it counts as lazy comment. There nothing intellectually brave or adventurous in exploring how awful the Mail mentality is.

Andrew Rilstone said...

Well, I don't remember putting up a sign outside the door saying that anyone has to read my stuff if they aren't interested. On days when I'm not either a: doing my day job or b: doing writing someone is actually paying me for I go to the cafe or sit at my desk and write about something which has caught my eye. Someone had, actually, asked me to explain why I found the murder piece offensive, so that was what I started to type about. (If you are the Steve H I think you, you have been reading me for about 20 years and know very well what kind of writing I do.) And then I split it into sections and put it online. Where you can read it if you want to. For free. Or not. This week, I want to cover parts 2 and 3 of evil Mel's homophobic series. I might then put the whole series (the frogs, baby jesus, liz and mel) into a pamphlet. Or I might not. Or I might decide I don't feel like writing, and spend six months in the coffee shop with the complete works of Robert E Howard. Or learn to play the ukele. Ever since I started going to folk gigs, I've wondered about learning the ukele; or maybe the penny whistle? I don't have much of an ear, but I thought I could maybe learn enough chords to sing some Jake Thackray or Les Barker numbers at parties? But I won't make anybody listen to them unelss they want to.

Helen Louise said...

You should learn the ukulele, it's lots of fun. I've played for about 9 months now, there's plenty of fairly easy stuff on the internet to start off with. is a good place to find out more info :)

I'd also recommend getting an electronic tuner, it makes it much easier to know if you're in tune or not :)

Andrew Rilstone said...

Possibly, as a first step, I should learn to spell ukulele.

Graham MF Greene said...

You can have mine on long term loan to try, if you like (I'm trying to concentrate on the guitar nowadays).

Not if it's going to interfere with you articulating your fury though.

Nick Mazonowicz said...

Also: "I talk about racist issues and I make fun of black people but I've never wanted to make it racist"

Having encountered some of Jim Davidson, he does seem less evilly racist than say Bernard Manning or Roy Chubby Brown, a lot of his jokes are actually aimed at the treatment blacks are likely to receive from the police. I still wouldn't recommend him for fun though.

I too can recommend the Ukulele, it's small, portable and easy to learn.

But please don't it let distract you from your rage at tabloid journalism.

Phil Masters said...

Is there a context in which that cartoon would be even faintly amusing?

The past. It's a different country. The things that they do differently there aren't all picturesque, you know.

(Some of us remember when rape jokes were used to sell women shampoo.)

Andrew Rilstone said...

The closest analogy I could think of was Homer Simpson trying to strangle Bart. ("What, in the 21st century, people thought child murder was funny?") Which isn't really a very close analogy at all.