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Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Media monkey business in search for readers

This article of mine, on why British journalism has become truly shocking, appears in the First Post.

What was your reaction on reading AA Gill's Sunday Times column in which he boasted about killing a baboon because he wanted to find out "what does it really feel like to shoot someone, or someone's close relative"?

The hope that a 'close relative' of the dead baboon would one day kill AA Gill?

That was mine too.

Baboons are, as Guy Norton, a wildlife expert, told the Guardian, "sentient and feeling animals who display similar characteristics to humans with strong parental bonds and sociable group behaviour". Yet here's a Sunday Times columnist boasting about how he shot one.

Gill's obnoxious piece is only the latest in a run of articles in Britain's newspapers whose sole aim seems to be to shock as many readers as possible.

Earlier this month, Jan Moir's Daily Mail article on the death of pop star Stephen Gately, in which she seemed to imply that his sudden death from a heart attack was caused by his homosexuality, led to a record number of calls to the Press Complaints Commission.

While in yesterday's Guardian, Tanya Gold dances on the grave of another recently deceased pop star, Michael Jackson, claiming he was only a "good" dancer, whose "greatest passion" was not music, or dancing, but "to sleep with children".
Gold's "greatest passion" appears to be attacking much-loved figures who are conveniently dead. In September, on the flimsiest of evidence, she tried to portray the late Queen Mother as a "cruel" Nazi-sympathising racist snob. (She's also attacked the Pope in a recent article - no doubt Mahatma Gandhi is next in the line of fire).

Why are we getting more and more of these deliberately offensive columns?

The answer is that the newspaper industry is in dire straits and in order to boost falling sales and get clicks on their websites editors are running articles that would have been spiked five or 10 years ago.

As a commenter to the Guardian website wrote in relation to Gold's Michael Jackson article: "Columnists and editors use one standard: the column is good if it generates comments, responses and controversy. This is deemed to be the only benchmark that matters."

Of course, newspapers have always chased readers. But today, with the very future of print journalism under threat, there is an increased urgency to grab readers' attention. And that means out with mature, reflective and nuanced articles which deal with important issues, and in with gratuitously offensive columns which set out to raise readers' blood pressure. The number of complaints or hostile comments a piece generates doesn't matter - the main thing is that the article, and the newspaper in question, receives the maximum publicity.

Journalism is following the path of British comedy where being shocking is deemed more important than making people laugh. Think of Jimmy Carr's latest crack on amputee soldiers, the obscenities of Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand on Radio Two and the episode of the IT Crowd which featured cannibalism.

So far we haven't had a journalist write of his/her experiences of eating human flesh. Or a columnist talking about his/her necrophilia or passion for sexual intercourse with animals.

But the way things are going, it won't be too long


Exile said...

I don't know who Jim Carr is, but I do know that anyone who was into bestiality, sadism and necrophilia would be doing nothing more than flogging a dead horse.

Gregor said...

Very good article Neil.

However, where papers are concerned, I sometimes wonder if it is as intentional as you make it out to be. The way I see it, commissioning editors are becoming immensely unlikely to hire anyone but neo-liberals.

It seems to me more an inescapable fact that if you get everyone to conform to a theory that is intellectually feeble and based on a strange blend of selfishness and egocentric holier-than-thou-ism* then people will neither be bright enough to tell when they are going too far and nor will they have the humility to admit that they were wrong.

As for broader culture, I think it is strangely related. I don’t actually think with Jimmy Carr it was purely that his joke was very dark, but that it was an unfunny and nasty attack of an over-promoted untalented entertainer at the expense of the horrifically injured (mostly from poor backgrounds). Of course people could question Bill Hicks’ taste for saying: ‘We live in a world where John Lennon was murdered, yet Barry Manilow continues to put out fucking albums’ ‘If you're gonna kill somebody, have some fucking taste. I'll drive you to Kenny Rogers' house.’ But I think few would resist a smile or deny that it in a strange way Hicks was paying homage to an immensely talented musician.

By contrast, I think the irony is that many of these modern Brits (Carr etc) would be surprised that they shocked people with unthinking comments (I actually found Moir’s article more idiotic than offensive). Maybe it is their surprise at being told it is wrong to be nasty to the recently dead/ injured soldiers that truly highlights how atomised and brutalised our society has become.

*Indeed for all their adolescent atheist-posturing, people like Tanya Gold and Johann Hari come across as unbearably smug vicars, preaching about morality and condemning anyone who stands outside their political correct creed. The irony is that in our Orthodox Church, people do try not to condemn their brother as ‘immoral’, but we remember our own sinfulness.

olching said...

Newspaper editors need clicks on their website. So there's a margin of stupidity which is actually beneficial to the financial situation of any given newspaper. See Comment is Free for the complete and utter meltdown of any journalistic or otherwise integrity over the last year or so.

The more 'controversial' the articles, the more loopy and malicious the comment, the more clicks. It's simple, yet thoroughly depressing.

Neil Clark said...

Exile: Nice one!
Gregor: many thanks. totally agree with you re Gold and Hari. This is the age of narcissism and it's reflected in the journalism. 'Let's write about me'-The interesting thing, as I think you mentioned on another blog, is just how unhappy and mixed-up these people often are in their private lives. AA Gill is a self-confessed former alcoholic. Tanya Gold has written about her alcholism. Hari has been on anti-depressants. Then there's a certain obsessional former hedge-fund trader-cum-Times blogger, who has spent almost four years attacking me and posting smears about me on the internet, ever since I committed the 'crime' of critically reviewing his pro-war book for the Daily Telegraph. He's popped up in the comments section of my First Post article to claim (falsely) that I deny the Srebrenica Massacre. He is totally obsessed with me. Normal behaviour?
These people sneer at other cultures/countries where people are much better adjusted, and much more rounded human beings than they are.
I'm British, but I feel much more at home in eastern europe, where people are, in general, less egotistical and less narcissistic.
And in general, they are much more rounded human beings.
Whether that's to do with the legacy of forty years of communism, or the influence of Catholic and Orthodox churches, or a mixture of the both, is something we can debate.

olching: totally agreed. hope all's well.

Neil Clark said...

Gregor: ps.
I should more more accurately say 'eastern and south-eastern europe'- as I certainly include Serbia and Greece.

Pacrov said...

This is the age of narcissism and it's reflected in the journalism. 'Let's write about me'

Maybe you need to have a quiet word with your wife...

Neil Clark said...

that's a poor analogy.

Zsuzsanna's motivation in writing her book was to show readers how ordinary working-class people lived in Hungary under communism.
The important thing about her book is the way it describes how life was lived under a different system. It's a book that is fundamentally about life in Hungary under communism, not about Zsuzsanna, but of course she writes about her experiences in order to describe what every-day life was like.

To compare that with the 'let's talk about me' shallow, egocentric, narcissistic columns that are sadly so common in the British media today, is ridiculous.

jock mctrousers said...

You SHOULD deny the 'Srebrenica massacre' Neil, at least in the form it's presented by NATO's propaganda machine. I'm sure you're aware of the writings of Ed Herman and others on this, and on Diana Johnstone's essential work on the NATO propaganda operation.
The 8000 figure was derived from an ICRC (International Committee of the Red Cross) missing list which included all sides and covered a period of years. There was no justification whatever for claiming that this was a list of Muslims who had disappeared after the fall of Srebrenica.

I think it is reasonable to believe that the witness accounts from Dutch soldiers, contained in the Dutch government report, indicate SOME massacres, but there is so far no justification for claiming that there was anything out of the general trend of what was a nasty civil war.

The ICTY forensic report on Srebrenica (from 2000) is available online at
Scroll down to p91 Annex B: Summary of Forensic Evidence - Positive Identifications. 45 bodies identified, no cause of death given.

OK, we've all heard of the thousands of new bodies being discovered by the ICMP ( International Commission for Missing Persons, which funnily enough, as you can see if you look at their website, is staffed almost exclusively by NATO personnel). Fast forward to 14 Mar 2007, to the only statement I've found from an ICMP spokesperson about their methods and results. The 'Scotsman' newspaper posted, on its website, an interview with Adam Boys, ICMP's Chief Operating Officer and Director of Finance since September 2000 at
The interview has mysteriously disappeared, but the important stuff is still there in the comments discussion in which Boys participated, In posts #37 & #38 (his replies to posts #33 and #34) Adam Boys

"The date of death, manner of death, and who did the killing are a matter for the courts. "

It will be a decision for the (Nato-appointed) regional governments whether a list of those identified from Srebrenica will be available online.

Asked whether there is: " a publicly accessible database, broken down by date of death, place remains found, cause of death, ethnicity (established by DNA from relatives) etc. details? "
Boys evades the question by answering " There is the ICRC list of missing. It does not show ethnicity. Neither do our records. "

So, despite all the fanfare in the media, there is no more substantial evidence yet to make ANY claims about the scale or scope of any massacres at Srebrenica.
Of course, as I am sure you are aware, the 'Srebrenica massacre' story has served all along as a distraction from the REAL genocide that took place simultaneously with the connivance of NATO - the 'ethnic cleansing' of the Serbs of Krajina.
It would seem incredible to most people, but to date there has been NOT ONE muslim identified as having been summarily executed by Serbs after the fall of Srebrenica. Why not say it. You might as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb.

Gregor said...

I’ve been wondering a while why te Graun has been commissioning work from Harry Phibbs; you’ve probably nailed it.

I made a similar point on Aaronovitch watch. Got a bit of flack for describing Hari as ‘a bloke on anti-depressants who is obsessed with spreading western hegemony’, or something. I wasn’t really having a go at him, but purely demonstrating that there is a considerable dissonance between ideals of how perfect Anglo-Saxon liberalism is, and the reality of living in a consumerist, atomised society full of artificial sentimentality.

‘Normal behaviour? These people sneer at other cultures/countries where people are much better adjusted, and much more rounded human beings than they are.’

Hari’s hero is Christopher Hitchens whose ‘success’ has to be one of the saddest signs of how vain and unpleasant the West is. Nasty, incessantly wrong, illogical, contradictory, full of male inadequacy that’s soothed by bombing campaigns, Hitchens proves you can be a 'success' whilst being a maniac: you just have to be self righteous and carefully stroke the egos of your readers.

Yet, I wonder if that really is enough for Hitchens? He is stupid enough to be frequently wrong, but I think he is clever enough to notice. Given how much he drinks, I wonder if he suspects that he really is a z-grade historian, z-grade prophet and z-grade philosopher who gets lucrative deals by flattering his readers and adhering to the ideology of his publishers. Maybe he drinks because he suspects that his rabid fans are either 1) People who confuse shared delusions with wisdom or 2) Even more sinister people who don’t believe in neo-conservatism, but profit from it.

Still, Hari never seems to ask himself how he would see Hitchens if he was a religious figure rather than an atheist?

Concerning your stalker and (?) Oliver Kamm… well, as I said, I find Hitchens unpleasant. But I’ve never once written to him and I’ve stopped reading his articles. I’ve got too many friends to meet and too many interesting place to go to waste time hating an over-promoted (probably emotionally damaged) weirdo. This is some contrast to whomever it is that devotes hours to attacking you. If neo-liberalism and the atomised society it creates are so wonderful, why is his time best spent harassing someone he disagrees with?

Entirely agree re Eastern/ Southern Europe. I’ve only been to Greece, but the Serbs and Romanians are similar people. I have some good British friends, but overall, I don’t fit into the society much and think the South East has more to teach Britain than vice versa.

‘Whether that's to do with the legacy of forty years of communism, or the influence of Catholic and Orthodox churches, or a mixture of the both, is something we can debate.’

Given how many former apparatchiks (Yeltsin for instance) supported neo-liberalism, I think that whilst communism had its good points, the authoritarian nature of it had long term negative effects.