Now scandalous behaviour is the norm, how are poor tabloid hacks to whip up outrage? Thank goodness our new universities are rising to the challenge
Some time ago this column scorned media studies courses, the gist of its case being that they were neither academic nor vocational, since few of those graduating could expect to find employment in the overcrowded trade of journalism.
I can now see that I was wrong. My mistake was to take a high-minded and foolishly outmoded view of what it means to be a journalist in modern Britain. One has only to consider the unfortunate experience of Princess Michael of Kent to put the craft of journalism in a contemporary context. This vain and rather foolish woman was duped into embarrassing indiscretions by a reporter from the News of the World masquerading as an Arab sheikh interested in buying a property from her.
This was manufactured news of a high order, obtained by deception – a technique that ought, if it is not already, to be part of what I am sure are called “modules” in the media studies courses offered by our newer universities. Each of these faculties of learning should be equipped, if it is not already, with a wardrobe department where students could dress up as Eastern potentates, Chinese businessmen, Russian oligarchs and so on, and practise their skills in entrapping people whose misfortune is to be famous and wealthy and who are therefore deserving of humiliation and ridicule.
Those who sneer at the News of the World are mistaken: they see prurience where the media studies expert, conscious of history, sees a kind of Sabbatarian puritanism. The News of the World has traditionally enjoyed a large readership composed of God-fearing Britons wishing to learn of the frailty and wickedness of human nature and to reflect that there, but for the grace of God and, let us face it, sheer bad luck, they, too, go.
Years ago, the News of the World’s staple fare was sex scandal reported in a curiously elliptical fashion. A foreign student of the English language would have inferred from its pages that sex was synonymous with something called “interference”. Vicars, the most prized and newsworthy of all subjects, interfered with young girls and sometimes boys; schoolteachers and politicians did likewise; as did criminals, though not always. On one occasion the paper reported a particularly grisly murder in which the body of the victim, a young woman, was cut into pieces and scattered along the Great North Road, but, News of the World readers were informed, she was not interfered with. Pity, because it was from such interference that they gained the most pleasure.
Today, when everyone in public life openly interferes with everyone else and, in return for a suitable consideration to be negotiated by Mr Max Clifford or one of his many imitators, will do so in flagrante before the camera, sex scandal has lost much of its bite.
However, there remains an insatiable appetite for news of the pain, suffering, degradation and downfall of public figures. Many engineer their own ruin, to the satisfaction of the reading public, but this is a hunger that feeds upon itself and can never be assuaged. As part of its self-proclaimed public remit, the News of the World takes it upon itself, in those cases where celebrities have not fallen, to trip them up.
Media studies courses are especially well suited to provide people to do this work. It is an incontestable fact that school-leavers embarking on tertiary education are, for the most part, barely able to read or write. Neither skill is needed in tabloid journalism. Less easily acquired is the cast of mind that allows one to pursue a career unhampered by the petty burden of conscience or the tender ties of a shared humanity. To make victims of one’s fellow beings requires a certainty of purpose and a single-mindedness whose acquisition ought to feature, if it does not already do so, on the syllabus.
To gratify a tabloid readership is no easy task. If you imagine the readers of the News of the World, their narrow brows furrowed as they run a grubby finger below each line of type, slowly mouthing the words to themselves, you will see that to reach such an audience presents special challenges. If you picture a great ape trying to peel a grape, you will be near to understanding the tabloid reader as he grapples with the written word.
Even so, we may be confident that the media studies courses of today will furnish us with the tabloid journalists of tomorrow. Men and women who can, without demur, plunge their arms to the oxters in the cesspool of life and pull from the depths the ordure that the reader demands. After all, not every graduate of the former polytechnics can be a proper plumber.v