For – cough!

They called her “divisive”. She isn’t now. She has united this divided country in laughter. Press reaction to Theresa May’s “last gasp” closing speech to the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester seems to go beyond party politics. Her performance, wracked by a psychosomatic nervous cough and speared by the latest human hack by comedian Simon Brodkin (with whom I worked long and hard on a sitcom pilot that was never green-lit), was a how-not-to. Even her bracelet bore images of a Communist. As the Express helpfully explained, the horrible piece of wristwear “featured self-portraits of communist artist Frida Kahlo, who was Mexican and died in July 1954 aged 47”, going on to say that she “even had a love affair with Leon Trotsky, who is thought of as one of the fathers of modern communism. Communism is the theory that all property should belong to the state, and those in the community contribute to the state so that everyone’s needs can be met.  This is somewhat at odds with the Conservative Party, which traditionally favours private ownership as a means to promote enterprise.”

TheresaMayconferencenightmare

She may refuse to hand even a fake P45 to her unsackable Foreign Secretary, but she should sack whoever was in charge of putting the white letters onto the blue background. (I’m sure they can find another zero-hours job in May’s Britain, although it will not be May’s anything for long, surely. The writing’s partially on the wall. Oh, and just in case you thought my assessment of her nationwide unification was correct, and multi-partisan, the Express proves me wrong this morning, with a rallying cover that must have been put to bed before anybody had seen the speech, or perhaps composed on the moon. That’s the only possible explanation for this work of fiction.

TheresaMayspeechExpress

And the Mail remains on a planet of its own, with reference via Quentin Letts to the outgoing Prime Minister as “the old girl.”

TheresaMayspeechDailyMail

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Whatever | April 2009

Whatever | Trying to choose a newspaper
Hold the front page! Newspapers still matter!

WhateverPapersApril2009

I think my newsagent hates me. I regularly pop into his shop, but it is not to buy a Boost or a Lotto scratchcard; rather, it is to change my newspaper delivery order. Again. I fear he’s getting tired of re-inputting my latest fickle, print-based whim. I want to tell him … although I don’t think he’ll care … that I’m going through a media-life crisis. Those publications that have defined me for years no longer seem satisfactorily to do so.

I am a loyal subscriber to a number of publications, although I had to let the NME go last year when they stopped running anything over 250 words and, some years ago, I had to cancel my subscription to Your Cat when the same features about collars and worming started coming round for a second time. But I care passionately about which daily newspaper I take. After all, it says a lot more about a person than shoes or haircut in our increasingly promiscuous, mix-and-match age, especially when the only badges people now wear are company IDs round their Orwellian necks.

In London, with three separate daily freesheets in circulation, each as timorously gossip-weighted as the next, it’s a badge of honour to tuck a paper you actually picked out and paid for under your arm on the train home.

I was brought up in a Telegraph-reading household and have been a Guardian reader since the Miners’ Strike: as much a bid for undergraduate independence as wearing no socks or getting all the way through an Einsturzende Neubaten album. But I have, of late, been dallying with other dailies. Come the latest promotional period, when they all start to vie for the floating voter with booklets and Pizza Express vouchers, I began to shop around, weary of my beloved Guardian’s ceaseless manufacture of “personality journalists”, interns plucked from obscurity and offered a shot at the title, as long as they’ll mug for the lens and have wackily self-deprecating photos all over a light-hearted feature about whether haggling works in brothels or how to survive avian flu by living in a hole.

So, what the hell, I flirted with the Times for a few days – after first checking with Ben Elton that it was OK to buy a Murdoch title now. Altogether less concerned with attracting younger readers, I found it to be serious, literate, stimulating and non-hectoring, and its columnists more varied than the Independent’s (another fleeting ex of mine). But I wasn’t ready to commit.

WhateverPapersApril2009

One Thursday in February, I bought all the papers, boosting their ABC circulation figures en masse. It made interesting reading. No surprise, the red-tops were identical, juggling that day’s two big celeb stories: the ghoulish Jade Goody Death Watch – cue: product placement of Hycamtin, the “miracle cancer drug” – and Carol Thatcher’s dismissal for comparing Congolese tennis player Jo-Wilfried Tsonga to a golliwog in mixed ie. not all racist, company. The Mirror led on gollies being sold at Sandringham’s gift shop, as, with zero glee, did the Mail, whose editorial line was that Thatcher was being witch-hunted because of her mum (“Revenge on Maggie”) and the golliwog was an “innocent children’s hero.”

But while the once-xenophobic Sun found space for the opinion of Sunderland striker Djibril Cisse (“as a black footballer I’ve experienced racism in many different countries”), the Telegraph gave burdened white man Charles Moore the floor. His conclusion: that the BBC had “revealed its contempt for those who fund it” and was “culturally target-bombing” innocent racists (“I think Carol should start a Golliwog Club to defy the BBC ban and I think we should all join”). Sometimes, they make it easy for you.

The Guardian lifted its skirts in my direction with an investigative piece on corporate tax avoidance, which was all their own work and an actual exclusive. The golliwog story was downplayed on Page 8, although I feared one of their journalists would be blacked up in the next day’s G2 to gauge the public’s reaction. I had narrowed it down to two. Or three. I ordered the Times, missed the Guardian, then cancelled the Times.

WhateverPapersApril2009

All of which may be irking my newsagent, but whatever the outcome of this battle for my soul, at least it will have ink on its fingers. On election day in November, copies of the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Sun-Times were selling out as fast as vans could deliver them, and Nick Ferrari, reporting for London talk station LBC made this stirring speech: “It’s enough to gladden the heart of an old newspaperman. Whatever you say about the Internet and everything else, people still like to hold onto a manifest product of the news.”

You can’t make an impromptu rain hat out of the Internet either.

Published in Word magazine, April 2009

It’s a bore!

Royal baby front pages

I care deeply about many things, as you know. But here are a few things, on this special day, that I don’t care about. I don’t care about the Royal Baby. I didn’t care yesterday when the news channels had whole teams of correspondents standing outside a private hospital, and a palace, and the village shop in a village, essentially covering nothing, as it happened. I didn’t care whether it was a going to be a boy or a girl, and I don’t care that it is a boy. It’s not that I don’t care about its health or happiness. It is simply the most privileged of around 2,000 babies born in Britain yesterday, and I wish health and happiness on all of them, because why wouldn’t I? They are blameless little individuals. But I don’t care that the baby born in the private hospital in London yesterday with the mad people camping outside is third in line to the throne. I don’t care who is and who isn’t in line to this throne, as this appears to be the 21st century and I simply cannot understand where there is a “throne” to which babies are entitled even before their umbilical cord is cut. I don’t care about the baby’s parents, or what they will call their baby, as I don’t know them or it, and it’s none of my business. David Cameron said that “the whole country” was “excited” about the birth, but since I know for certain that I wasn’t, then this is a misleading generalisation.

I don’t care that The King’s Troop Royal Horse Artillery will ride past Buckingham Palace to stage a 41-gun royal salute in Green Park at 2pm today. I don’t care that at the Tower of London, there will be a 62-gun salute from the Gun Wharf by the Honourable Artillery Company. I certainly don’t care that a royal gun salute normally comprises 21 rounds, increased to 41 if fired from a royal park or residence. (The Guardian seems to think I do, as that’s where I gleaned that information.) I don’t care that the Tower gets an extra 21 for the citizens of the City of London to show their loyalty to the monarch. I don’t have any loyalty to the monarch, past or future, as I didn’t vote for them. (Sorry, old Monty Python reference.)

Royal baby front pagesRoyal baby front pagesRoyal baby front pages

I don’t care about the “ornate easel” put up outside Buckingham Palace last night, upon which the foolscap bulletin announcing details of the birth to the world was placed (and which typed sheet of A4 is the single cover image of more than one newspaper today). On a spectrum of giving a shit, the mad people in the Union Jack hats saying things to BBC News like “Princess Diana is shining down on them” and that this was “the people’s pregnancy” are at 10, and I’m at nought. Did I mention that I don’t care?

I don’t care that the baby is destined to be the 43rd monarch since William the Conqueror obtained the English crown in 1066. (Or at least, I’m half-interested in the history that took us to this point, but not in the idea that it still has any bearing on my life.) I don’t care that the baby was delivered at 4.24pm in the exclusive Lindo wing at St Mary’s hospital, Paddington, or that the Duke of Cambridge said, “We could not be happier.” It seems to me that we spent most of yesterday fixated on the dilation of a woman’s cervix, which really doesn’t seem like something complete strangers should do.

I certainly don’t care that the most privileged baby in Britain weighs 8lbs 6oz, which is close to the national average. It’s the only aspect of the baby that is close to any kind of average.

Royal baby front pages

If you care, I do not deny you the pleasure that this birth offers. I am not trying to stop anybody caring, or having a street party, or giving a bow or a curtsey to the television. I’m just expressing a view which made me feel like an alien on my own planet when I walked into the newsagent this morning. (I was going to say foreigner in my own land, but of course, the foreigners are just as mad for it.)

I watched The White Queen on Sunday night. It was all about what life used to be like in the olden days when we had kings and queens and court and ladies in waiting and all sorts of crazy, antiquated stuff. I’m glad I live in modern times.

Man covered in blood

This is a picture of a man covered in blood. The man is in the process of being killed. He is in pain. He is about to die. Don’t worry, though, he is a fictional character, Sonny Corleone, played by the actor James Caan, being made to look as if he is covered in blood and being killed using special effects in a film, The Godfather. This week, specifically Friday, the front page of every major national newspaper bore a picture, or pictures, of a man covered in blood. The man was in the process of being killed. He was in pain. He was about to die. He was factual and not played by an actor; he was Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, deposed leader of Libya, who was finally, and perhaps inevitably, captured and killed by rebel troops in his home city of Sirte on Thursday. The video footage from which the ubiquitous screen grabs were taken was shown on BBC News in the afternoon, over and over again. I don’t know if the footage was shown on Sky News, but I suspect it was.

This was a newsworthy image, from newsworthy footage, and its newsworthiness was never in doubt. Gaddafi was a dictator and he was killed by his own people (with a bit of bombing help from NATO) after 42 years in power. The uprising against him, and the sanctioned NATO assistance, tell us a lot about the so-called Arab Spring, which continues to rage across the Middle East and North Africa, and I’m not debating the need for the world media to cover this story in detail. It’s front page news in any year, in any decade, in any country, in any language.

What I question is the decision to run these gory pictures, in many cases blown up to large size for maximum impact. When I went to pick up my paper on Friday morning I was pretty offended by the sweep of bloody faces at my feet in the garage. Gaddafi is dead. Gaddafi was killed. Gaddafi was beaten to a pulp before being shot. We get the picture. But did we actually need to see the picture, without warning? I’m really only talking about the impact of the front cover images here, the ones that were on display in newsagents and garages up and down the land, where tiny children – and, hey, the adult squeamish – were likely to see them.

Clearly, none were more offensively framed than this one, but it’s no more or less than we’ve come to expect from The Sun:

I know, I know, the argument runs thus: this image of a bloodied, pre-death dictator was all over the internet within seconds of the footage being released by the National Transitional Council (they don’t sound much like a death squad with that name, do they?), so it would be a dereliction of journalistic duty for the mainstream news media not to follow suit and publish/run it. It is, after all, proof of a man’s death. And hey, it’s already out there. But there is still a difference between the internet, where many unpleasant images are just a click away from the eyes of users of all ages, and stacks of newspapers in a newsagent. It felt a bit like Snuff Day.

It felt to me as if it was OK to run pictures of this particular man in pain and about to die because he was a bad man. I’m not saying he wasn’t. But although the Sun went mad with vengeful bloodlust, it was no more exploitative than the other, more “respectable” papers really. (You had to admire the Express and Times, and I think the Star, who at least ran the picture small.) As Billy Bragg stated on Question Time the other week, human rights apply to all humans, and not exclusively to those humans that other humans have deemed worthy. Was there no dignity available for Gaddafi? Had he actually forfeited that human right? You might say yes. After all, when the body of Mussolini was hung on a meat hook from the roof of a petrol station in Milan in 1945, I expect these photos were sent around the world (albeit perhaps with a little less velocity).

As with my recent whine about animal rights, some of you may think me wasting my energy worrying about the dignity of a dead dictator. But it does coarsen our view of the world if men covered in blood, moments before death, are displayed across our newspaper covers. When I was at the NME, we debated long and hard about whether we could print the photograph of Richey Manic after his self-inflicted “4 REAL”. If memory serves, we decided against running it as the cover image, and only ran it in black and white on the news pages. It appeared, in full colour, inside the paper. But he was not dead. He was fine. This was 20 years ago, when competition with other media was less stiff, and newspapers were in a less of a panic about copy sales. I guess it took a brave newspaper editor not to run the bloody Gaddafi pic full splash on the front cover.

I’m not sure I always approve of the world I live in.