COMMENT: Stop Press
First published December 2000
Stop Press
Journalist scum, eh? A much loved tautology. Trips off our tongues before doing a back-flip and lodging firmly in our throats. We choke on it a bit, sit down to recover, and then go out and buy a paper. Journalism's a dirty job, but some immoral, self-serving, dick-brained bully has to do it. And anyway, we're middle-class and we buy The Guardian, which doesn't count does it?

Well, we're sorry, but no. It's our belief that journalism is the single most depressing, misanthropic and indefensible vocation anyone can undertake. It really doesn't matter with which newspaper you place your allegiance - they're all the same. Having said that, anyone who defends The Sun, no matter how erudite they may be, deserves to be shot through the lungs. But more of that later.

Journalists are chameleons. The man who writes for The Guardian in the morning could just as easily be be filing reports for The Sun come lunchtime. Journalists are taught to be flexible, able to dumb themselves up and down depending on the demands of their readership. And the readership is everything - newspapers are interested solely in making money, and they do this by endorsing and magnifying what they reckon their readers are thinking. The Daily Mail, for example, isn't written by a staff consisting of retired colonels and blue-rinsed WI monsters - it's written for retired colonels and blue-rinsed WI monsters. The articles are actually written by the same manipulative, well-educated, should-know-better cokeheads who write for every other newspaper in the country. They get together in wine bars at night with people from The Independent and The Daily Star and have a good laugh at all of us.

The greatest proof of this rather distasteful pudding is in the editorial leaders. The Sun calls them 'The Sun Says...' because it reckons (correctly) that its readers won't understand the column's function otherwise, but they amount to the same thing. These columns purport to be the voice of the paper. In fact, they're nothing of the sort - they are written by senior hacks, but only because they are an old hand at propaganda. Editorial leaders, far from being the voice of anyone on their staff, are written to a very strict formula - i.e., they must provoke the 'yeah, fucking right' response from their readers. This has one aim, and one aim only - to stop readers cancelling their subscriptions.

So The Daily Mail, for example, write that asylum seekers are dole-scrounging criminals bucking the system, while The Guardian write that we should accept responsibility for these people's plight and treat each case with the respect it deserves. Both the Mail readers and the Guardian readers, in their respective vernacular, utter 'Yeah, fucking right' over their cornflakes, and agree that their paper is reflecting their views so accurately they'll definitely go out and buy a copy the next day. In truth, of course, neither paper gives a toss about asylum seekers. Chances are, both viewpoints were written by the same person.

Journalism is a very specialised craft, and writing an article for an intended readership is more difficult than it looks. The Sun could never genuinely be written by the morons who buy it, because the rules are so complex. It's a strange irony that, for a profession with a reputation for being cut-throat and brutal, it's governed by so many legal and artistic regulations. A lead story in The Sun may look like it's been written by the brickies and bus drivers who it's aimed at, but this is an illusion, and precisely the reaction it's designed to provoke.

For example, in order to keep his or her job, a journalist must know the law backwards. Writing an article about a celebrity's private life, or an imminent court case, is a minefield in terms of what one can and cannot say, and no editor is going to allow some twat loose on a story unless they've had all the relevant training. There's also a conceptual side - a tabloid story is never the ill-informed, shapeless rant it appears to be: it must have a precise, storytelling structure, and use a limited number of words in a very calculated way. The language must be emotive rather than emotional, thus creating the illusion that the reader is a sensitive soul responding personally to a factual story when, in fact, his mind is being manipulated for a fee.

Writing newspaper stories simply - The Sun's reading age is pitched at 12 - is difficult to do, and this has lead to many within the industry labelling tabloid journalism as 'art'. Garry Bushell, for example, is a member of MENSA, who in his time has written articulate pieces for journals like The Modern Review and various music magazines. But he's smart enough to know that he can make more money by pretending to be a crypto-homophobic, send-em-all-back 'Voice of the people' Rottweiller. Writing stupid stories for stupid people is a real skill, and you need brains, cunning, application and perseverance to do it well. Mind you, the same is probably true of killing a child.

Journalism is aimed at endorsing the readers' views, but journalists are really in it for themselves, and money controls this unhealthy relationship. Take the Elton John 'rent boys' scandal from a few years back. A completely fictitious story, obtained from an unreliable source, but The Sun ran the front-page story anyway. Why? Because it made economic sense. The singer was almost certain to sue the paper, but the extra readership The Sun would reap through printing the story in the first place would more than cover said costs. In fact Elton John went to the Press Complaints Commission instead, so all the paper had to do was apologise. Alarmingly, however, this is now a standard occurrence at all national newspapers - money for damages set against readership potential is now part of a newspaper's monthly budget. It's seen as a fact of life, the result being that newspapers can afford to run false stories on a regular basis.

Journalism has a gruesome hand in real events, and the saddest thing is when people outside the industry use it to their own ends. The abduction and murder of Sarah Payne is surely the most recent and repulsive...and we're not just talking about the killing itself. A week after Sarah goes missing, Mr and Mrs Payne give an exclusive interview to the Mirror. The headline informs us that 'Sarah's parents tell their story to the Mirror's Sue Carroll'. They are pictured, looking suitably distraught, on a sofa, while inside there is an arty, soft-focus black and white photograph of them embracing by a tree. Opposite them sits Carroll, looking like she's come back from a make-over. A smile plays across her face. This is just the boost she needs for her career - a nice human interest story, with her name in the strap-line. Luckily, she had her hair done for the occasion. Several million Mirror readers will buy the paper because it reflects how they feel about the case - i.e., that murdering little girls is a 'bad thing', and there ought to be a law against it. Circulation is up, and so is Sue Carroll. Meanwhile, several miles away, the police are still looking for Sarah's body.

Just what fucking planet are we on here?

Journalism is a crime, and it pays. The worse thing is, young trainee journalists are being taught that this is the way things are, rather than being encouraged to fight against it. No journalist gives a fuck about the Sarah Payne story or anything of its kind - like police officers, they simply couldn't do their job if they had a remotely human reaction to events of that kind. So what use are they? Packs of News Of The World readers are currently throwing bricks through the windows of innocent men because they look a bit like a nonce - not because they care about 'the future of our children', but because it allows them to forget how scummy and rancid their own tedious lives are and wallow in the righteousness of being a 'concerned parent'. They hold opinions, but they are not their own - they are the opinions they believe they ought to be holding. There is strength in numbers, especially if they're wearing balaclavas.