The Leveson Inquiry. Remember that? Probably not: it was, like, 1280 news-years ago.
Lord Justice Leveson spent over a year compiling a report into the culture, practices and ethics of the press, and it was finally released as the Leveson Report on 29th November. It exposed over-cosy relationships, slapped the back of phone hackers’ hands, and generally highlighted flagrant abuses in the media. However, the report failed to consider some of the structural problems with ‘news’ as a concept. Allow us to demonstrate how it has inadvertently proved them.
One of the chief problems is the perceived need for ‘timeliness’. This has been elevated to a ludicrous parody of itself by rolling 24-hour news networks and websites; indeed, the very newspaper whose searchlight on tabloid reporting practices kicked off Lord Leveson’s quest recently started live-blogging children’s funerals.
That news must be new might seem harmless, sensible or even tautological, but this narrow-minded definition precludes in-depth analysis of anything which takes more than two minutes to understand (ie most things), and denies front-page publicity to any problem which is chronic rather than acute.
To take the example of the Leveson Inquiry itself, this is a graph showing the number of articles on Google News containing the words ‘Leveson Inquiry’, sorted by date.
Grab a nearby physicist, get them to do a simple bit of curve-fitting, and they’ll tell you the ‘half-life’ of this news story: 0.67 days. After just 16 hours, the number of news stories about Leveson halved; after another 16 hours, that number halved again, and so on.*
So, naturally, one might estimate how long it would take to read the Leveson Report: clocking in at 2000 pages, four volumes, and over 1,000,000 words (a snip at just £250 to buy from The Stationery Office), it would take someone reading at 200 words per minute for twelve hours a day seven days to digest the lot.
Whilst it’s a bit facile to suggest that you have to read every word of something before you can comment on its conclusions, Leveson’s document might be worth revisiting after some more thorough reading. Few, it seems, have bothered to do so. Similarly, the problems detailed by the report are chronic: the tug-o’-war between press freedom and freedom not to read made-up shit in newspapers whilst having one’s private information filched is ongoing, but ‘the media’ can barely be bothered to report on it except in the immediate aftermath of some ‘newsworthy’ event.
If ‘news’ seeks to better inform us about the world we live in, then this obsession with novelty needs to wither: we need ‘intelligent, contemplative write-up of the Leveson Inquiry’, rather than ‘Prime Minister in theatrical coalition punch-up over statutory press regulation, analysis of which we shall not deign to provide’; we want ‘the complex economic and environmental cases for wind and nuclear’ instead of ‘Tories in theatrical coalition punch-up over minister’s stupid comments about wind farms’; and, more broadly, ‘civil war and famine still going on’ rather than ‘man claims to have heard other man insult policeman’.
Roughly one hundred times more people die from malaria globally than shootings in the US, and yet Google News returns 39,000 results for ‘malaria’, and six million results for the words ‘gun control’, in spite of the latter being quite a specific turn of phrase which probably doesn’t make it into every article about guns. So, in some sense, that ratio is over fifteen thousand times out of proportion. Sadly for malaria victims, their several thousand deaths a day are geographically dispersed, symptomatically similar, and boring.
Such is the allure of current affairs that even we chose to base this article about an endemic and ongoing issue on a hook from the recent past, albeit one which the rest of the press hasn’t written about in so long that this article will form a spike on our own damned graph, completing the circle of self-awareness. If only the media had one of those.
* Note that this analysis actually underestimates the capriciousness of the news, because many of those early articles were top stories, trumpeting Leveson’s launch from front pages, whilst those published later are tucked away on page nineteen of the print copy, or obscure news blogs.
To those lucky enough not to have been following this story since its bitter beginnings, Samantha Brick is a woman. She wrote an article for the Daily Mail on Tuesday, complaining that other women hate her because she’s too beautiful. The utter irrelevance of the piece, the galling arrogance of the idea, and Ms Brick’s failure to meet the standards of ‘beauty’ for many readers was a red rag to a platoon of bulls. The page was inundated with comments, and thus was born a temporary mini-phenomenon for both traditional and social media.
Now, the ante just keeps getting upped:
The self-parody alert apparently hasn’t gone off at Daily Mail HQ. Or maybe it has, and someone pulled the wires out and stamped on it a few times because the sound it made was just too beautiful for human ears. Even seasoned press disparagers are watching the continued apparently-uncontrolled-but-possibly-self-aware tailspin of the Samantha Brick non-story with a kind of pinch-nosed amusement so, apart from the fact that we’ve not linked to the story directly, they’ve won. The Daily Mail have found the winning formula.
They’ve created a totally bizarre perpetual motion machine of a story that runs entirely on its own perceived notoriety, regardless of the number of meta- prefixes required to explain the situation. I might be wrong, but I think we’ve become meta-meta-meta-interested, in that the most interesting aspect is that meta-meta-interested parties (who recognise the cheap ad-revenue-maximising strategy being employed) still go back for more. If that interests you, it’s time to get a job in a philosophy department. Or at the Guardian.
And, when half of the Milky Way is torn asunder as an indirect result of them, I think we’d all be justified in hating Samantha Brick for her looks.
(Spotted on the front page of their in-depth referendum coverage.)
Today’s Guardian front page carried a stark headline:
Disappointment loomed large for anyone breathing a sigh of relief at this astute observation, however, as clicking on the link led to an equally stark page…albeit one totally lacking in self-awareness: ‘Japan nuclear crisis—live updates’ it crows, pruriently.
This is the equivalent of writing:
This nuclear crisis is obscuring the suffering of the population because we, the media, keep saying how shit is blowing up, and there’s radioactive shit everywhere, and the water’s boiling, and it’s horrible, and oh my God it’s like Chernobyl and Three Mile Island and Windscale! It’s going nuclear and there’s shit everywhere! Shit!
Sitting alongside this trend for live-blogging panic is the desire for easy-to-understand graphical analyses:
And what could be better for displaying life, death, and potential catastrophe than a traffic light scale and jaunty fonts? We find it slightly odd that the Guardian only seems to class 4,277 dead as an orange-level catastrophe—though at least it merits more than Comic Sans. Or, our personal favourite font for lending gravitas to a natural disaster, Space Toaster:
And, just to make it extra-tasteful, the designer decided, as well as blasting our flagging empathy with incomprehensible numbers of fatalities, to quantify the disaster in units we can all understand: the performance of the Nikkei stock index. Do I want this page to update automatically every minute? Do I ever!
No one can accuse Sky News of bias, beyond the odd lapse, due to understandable human errors.
One assumes that, if these are odd, human-error-induced lapses, Sky must broadcast a lot of humble corrections.