Unlikely though it may seem, journalism and fine art have something in common: they both require a sense of proportion and perspective. Lately, however, in the pursuit of excitement and novelty, these ancient desiderata have been cast aside. The result is bad journalism and bad art.
Let us leave aside the art and concentrate on the journalism. One day recently on BBC’s 24-hour news programme a marketing expert – I didn’t catch his name – came into the studio to be interviewed. The subject was the announcement by Masterfoods that it was to stop marketing sweets to children under the age of 12. The expert had brought with him a selection of products – Mars, Snickers, Maltesers and the like – which he lined up on the table between him and the young female presenter. These items were then discussed and handled as though they were packages of strontium-90.
Under examination the expert conceded that Mars Bars would still be packaged, promoted and sold. "But what can be done," wailed the young female, "to stop children eating things that harm them?"I found myself yelling, "For heaven’s sake, dear, we are talking about a Mars Bar, not a dose of anthrax." Chocolate confectionery has been eaten by people of all ages for decades without occasioning fuss or comment. It is as much part of life as newspapers, television or a cup of tea. Until the great obesity scare it occurred to no one that one of life’s harmless little pleasures was in truth a dangerous menace.
It was once a truth so axiomatic as to be unworthy of comment that if you chose to subsist on Mars Bars you would certainly be sick and you would probably be fat. In those enlightened times a sense of perspective and proportion belonged not just to journalists and painters. So how did we come to lose it? I think it was because with the advent of the mass media came the mass scare.
It is a commonplace that children enjoy being frightened. It is also an observable fact that, with increased leisure, affluence and luxury, adults are more childlike. So, it is profitable to provide enjoyment and entertainment by scaring them. An entire industry flourishes. It is vertically integrated with suppliers of scares in research establishments and universities providing raw material to journalists who process it into bite-sized fun chunks for popular consumption. What the industry lacks is a measure, along the lines of the Richter Scale, to gauge the relative strengths of scares. I suggest it should be called the Fatboy after the Dickens character who wanted to make your flesh creep. The unit of measurement, from one to ten, would be the Bloodchill. So, for example, a story that giant aphids were lining up at Calais to mount an invasion would measure eight bloodchills on the Fatboy. Reports that a meteorite will hit Earth causing death and destruction on a colossal scale, and that it’s not a matter of if but when (a staple phrase of the scareologist), would register one bloodchill.
Scares come in a variety of shapes and sizes and their impact is not always proportionate to the noise they make.
There are scares big, scares minor, scares exotic, and scares played down. Scares big include the danger of contracting avian flu by french kissing a turkey; the danger of destroying the planet by leaving the telly on standby overnight; the danger of catching a flesh-rotting disease from going into hospital to have your tonsils out; the danger of being blown to pieces by a Muslim youth wearing a backpack and a burka; and of course the danger of getting fat from eating socially unacceptable foodstuffs.
Scares minor include tobacco and alcohol, which lack originality; the danger of being ruptured in a collision with an eight-year-old girl on Heelys; and the danger of wasting away to size zero through not eating sufficient socially acceptable foodstuffs.
Examples of scares exotic are the meteorite now landing on platform three; the danger of your neighbour’s roof being swept up in a typhoon and deposited in your bath; and the tsunami that will engulf Eastbourne (not if but when) after a section of Newfoundland slips into the sea.
Scares played down are familiar. Thus tobacco may be bad for you, but cannabis isn’t; violent crime may frighten you but you are mistaken; gambling addiction is a rare phenomenon that can be treated by Tessa Jowell; uncontrolled mass immigration exists only in the mind of the Daily Mail.
Scares big seldom register at all on the Fatboy; scares minor may score as much as seven or eight; scares exotic are subject to seasonal variation; and scares played down cause terrible tremors. But don’t worry. Keep it all in perspective.•