Wednesday, August 11, 2004

It's not the pretty people's fault

What a thrill: Mischa Barton, the overly beautiful star of great teen drama The O.C., is British. No, not all ugly dumpling skinheads - there's another one to add to the list headed by Kate Beckinsale and Keira Knightley. Having just wasted a good ten minutes poring over pictures of Mischa, though stil shuddering to learn that she was the creepy scary dead girl in Sixth Sense, I have discovered that she lived in London until the age of four, when she was shipped off to New York to become a movie star. That makes her our's, OK, guys?

But as I flicked through the pages of Metro and peered at the pictures of Nadia in someone else's Sun, I came across that time-honoured and weak argument from rich-green-entrepeneur Roddick that our media and world are so bad because 'most of our media today focuses on celebrity'. This argument, which basically comes down to the idea that we're too busy reading about celebrities to think about the real world, is nonsense. Because, put simply, we *can* think about more than one thing at once. Yes, we can, honestly. But those people who criticise the media because of celebrity obsession are distracting themselves and failing to acknowledge the real scope of the problem. There is plenty of serious stuff in our papers, but it's nonsense.

To illustrate let me take you through my definitive page-by-page analysis of your average British middle market newspaper:

Page one: We're all going to die/the floods are coming!
Souped-up scare story made up around the watercooler terrifying us all about the latest healthscare / what a lot of rain there's been / immigrants

Page two: Snore snore
Dutifully reported events or announcements by the government / trade unions / thinktanks presented in 'serious' short stories, but rest assured no-ones reading that because they're looking at

Page three: Phwar!!
Fabulous respectable actress out on the town last night but golly, is that a nipple showing?

Page four, five, six: Sex between adults - why you MUST know
Latest sex scandal involving well-known figure of 'authority' which normally reaches such gigantic proportions purely because of some spat between an editor and some PR machine which immediately sends every editor on Fleet Street to their chequebooks in the name of press freedom, Your Right To Know and The Public Interest - all of which doesn't apply when it comes to actually reporting what's going on in the world.

Page seven: What Murdoch's government are lying about now
Leaks, spin, made-up numbers and easy-to-follow 'fact' boxes that will really confuse you

Page eight: Murders, rapes and robberies
All the really essential, difficult to get stuff phoned in by your drunk correspondents from outside Britain's courtrooms

Page nine to 14: We must have done enough news by NOW
No. Time for the international news, all about the American elections

etc etc etc

So you see, dotted around all the celebrities, the serious stuff isn't telling us anything at all. Is the real distraction stories on celebrities? Who, to the best of my knowledge, rarely murder, incite others to violence or send in the national troops to kill and be killed in the name of their country? The horror of seeing Britney in Farenheit 9/11 vacuously putting her trust in her president (and finally showing us that she and Justin are not, after all, meant to be together) was the final assurance that celebrities and hard news should be kept firmly in their separate spheres. Reading and gossiping about celebrities is harmless - celebrities provide national entertainment which can be gleefully shared by friends or strangers on a train. It's necessary for a country which no longer has the same sense of community as it once did.

No, the problem is in newspapers which think they have the right to mislead their readers by printing rubbish, that they have the right to invade anyone's privacy and misuse the public interest argument that should be confined to, er, the public interest (ie politicians stealing money, not having affairs unless it happens to be with a spy) and that we actually care in the slightest about the thinly veiled spin that passes for political news now because an actual announcement or actual events isn't exclusive enough and involves a bit more effort that printing the latest anxious speculation in the corridors of Canary Wharf.

If the good papers realised that there's no shame in a bit of celebrity indulgence (which, to be fair, the Telegraph has to an extent though it has come in for much criticism over it) then we would finally have a good mix in a newspaper. Put the latest developments on Michelle and Stuart's 'romance' in (quick, before we lose interest - oh, there it goes) next to news on Sudan, it might just get more people reading proper news. And that, surely, is what newspapers are there for, isn't it?

Postscript: I don't want to blow my own trumpet (the classic blogger lie) but I've been doing mental ticking of boxes in recent days and the above content analysis is Right. Especially in the Standard.

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