Thursday, 6 June 2013

It's not the Daily Mail in disguise – honestly

Here's a question: can the only way to lure women to read a newspaper be to liberally sprinkle it with celebrity tittle tattle and bitchy dispatches about someone else's private life/body/clothes?

I ask for a reason, inspired (although it seems to do that word a rank injustice) by a piece in today's Daily Telegraph.

In it, a female journalist - and again, this is taxing the language somewhat - addressed the the vexed question of whether Ms Kate Winslet, star of the silver screen, was really doing a favour to her two children in marrying for a third time, being also pregnant by the new man in her life.

I'm really not sure what Kate has done to draw this attention - other than being a famous and successful film star - or perhaps it's simply because she is a Kate. After all, only a few short weeks ago, the same publication produced another piece, written by a different hackette, and filed under UK news.

The 'news' in that case, was that another Kate, the Duchess of Cambridge, was rather letting the side down in the maternity wear stakes. She had apparently been buying off-the-peg pregnancy wear. The nerve of it.

There is something a tad ironic about the dear old Torygraph carrying an article that says that marriage might not be the best option for a particular individual who, whatever their 'success' rate in that field, certainly seems rather committed to it as an ideal.

Although, of course, marriage shouldn't be allowed for gay people.

But allow yourself a flight of fancy for a moment and muse whether it would have entertained the same thoughts of Henry VIII.

Which subject itself raises a quite interesting point.

Earlier this year, author Hilary Mantel was pretty much crucified by most of the press for a lecture that she gave (and the subsequent essay that was published) for the London Review of Books. In it, Mantel argued that the bodies of royal women become public property, because their core role becomes to produce an heir to the throne.

That she appealed, very calmly, for the Duchess to be left alone in her pregnancy came to nought, as what she'd said was twisted from being a very polite condemnation of much of the media coverage (and the public obsession with the issue) into a personal attack on Kate herself.

Yet within days, there was more coverage of the royal pregnancy. I recall one online article - if we can dignify it with such a term - that was simply an excuse to publish a number of pictures of the Duchess, taken at a function, from a variety of angles, to illustrate her "baby bump".

But while you reach for the sick bags, ponder this: one of the things that Mantell pointed out was that even in the reign of Henry VIII, while there may have been no newspapers, there was still no shortage of public speculation about his wives and their abilities (or otherwise) to produce a male heir.

So the issue is not new and cannot be laid entirely at the door of the newspapers.

What these latest examples illustrate, however, is that even quality newspapers are going down a particular route.

A little background here. I was first introduced to the Telegraph when I started doing sports coverage for the Morning Star. One of the senior hands informed me that it had the best sports coverage around and that I should read it.

He was right - and I did. And since these were the days when you had no option but to buy areal paper newspaper, I also read other content.

You didn't have to agree with the editorial line - but editorial and reporting were clearly and properly defined, and the quality of both was high. The Other Half also recalls that the Telegraph had exemplary coverage of intentional news, so this isn't just my viewing things through rosy specs.

Which makes it particularly sad to see a fine newspaper's descent down the road it is currently taking.

Only the other week it was revealed that the Telegraph, in conjunction with the BBC, of all media organisations, had done some serious, public-interest work on revealing lobbying issues among MPs.

But an increasing amount of the mainstream media seems to be relying on these occasional public-service journalism to justify an increasing amount of tripe - and their continued opposition to any form of independent regulation.

And there is the additional issue of such coverage so often being an encouragement by women, to other women, to judge and despise yet more women.

What does the Telegraph want and what does it think it will achieve?

The sort of articles that I have mentioned would be more obviously at home in the Daily Mail - and indeed, the Telegraph has gained a recent nickname of the Maily Telegraph in recognition of precisely this approach.

The Mail  has been remarkably successful in winning female readers - and winning them to right-wing politics. That's a fact. So does the Telegraph really believe that this is a way to boost circulation/hits among women?

It's probably fair to say that the majority of those who purchase gossip magazines are women, so presumably there's a growth market out there or at least considered to be. And the success of the Mail should never be underestimated as a model. for other publications

Of course women do not, per se, simply want to read tat, but the Telegraph is far from alone in this, and there is a real and increasing problem with even our so-called quality press feeling a need to dumb down.

And of course it's not merely a female thing. Judging by many, many posters on the Telegraph forums, most of whom appear to be male, the ultimate problem is an increasing, cross-gender inability to think beyond kneejerkery.

And that is bad for the public discourse as a whole and, therefore, for every single one of us who cares about that public discourse and about the political life of the country that it inevitably informs.

For that reason, it is irrelevant if one personally avoids such copy. Because the impact is obviously so much wider.

Unfortunately, I cannot see an end in sight to the dumbing down. Except to say: think about what you read - particularly online - and don't give financial succour to those who are probably quite happy for that dumbing-down, that increasing bread and circuses, to continue.

There is a question of wether in discussing such articles we actually fall into the trap of doing exactly what the accountants want - particularly given the relationship between online hits and advertising revenue - but it's just as dangerous, it seems to me, to pretend that ignoring this dross will make it go away.

We need to hold up the media to some sort of standards. Anything else simply lets the bastards get away with it.

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