Jan 12

The perplexing paradoxes of popular journalism

The first phase of the Leveson inquiry in the British press isn’t quite finished yet, but the inquiry is entering new territory. Or at least there’s a change of mood.

The opening weeks were dominated by complaints and horror stories about red-top reporters. Straws passing on the wind tell me that this indignation is now being replaced by more sober reflection about the issues which face big-circulation papers.

Daily Mail February 1997

Here are the straws I’ve counted recently. Lord Leveson himself has from the start been keen to underline that he is not embarking on any project to “beat down” popular papers. He has also been asking each of his celebrity witnesses what they would do about the faults of which they complain and has more than once sounded a little irritated by the vagueness of the prescriptions he is offered. When editors take the stand at Leveson this month, we will be reminded that popular journalism can reveal important truths and explain complex events in ways that papers with bigger reputations and much smaller circulations can’t manage. Jonathan Freedland of The Guardian, at one time a columnist for the Daily Mirror, wrote a defence of the tabloids the other day.

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Apr 11

Royal wedding fever: sense (and nonsense)

Yesterday, the tweeters of politics were fascinated by the fallout from David Cameron saying “Calm down dear”, to a (female) Labour MP at Prime Minister’s Questions. In Washington, Barrack Obama was forced to devote a press briefing to disclosing his birth certificate. In this mad atmosphere, I abandoned my too-serious intention to write about the useful and increasing interest in verification in online news. Just didn’t seem to fit the mood.

Then I fell across (hat-tip: Martha Lane Fox) this piece by Tristram Hunt on tomorrow’s Royal Wedding. This pretty well nails it, especially thanks to Hunt’s depth of historical knowledge. He’s helping to explain why there’s a paradox in the royal soap opera.

When the royal family try too hard to perform for the media and to manipulate their image, it never goes well. When they ration the excitement and play it straight and cautious, the allure which Hunt describes very well holds steady. The Queen has always done it this way; Prince William and his fiancee look as they’ve got it too. Expect lots of commentary from metropolitan media sharpshooters in the next few years about what a boringly domestic couple Wills and Kate are. I suspect that’s exactly where they want to be. Whatever way William plays the media and celebrity, he isn’t likely to imitate his mother.

Tristram Hunt’s grasp of why something as apparently “illogical” as the monarchy endures in popularity is very much stronger than the prediction made by Jonathan Freedland in the New York Review of Books. Freedland acknowledges and analyses the Queen’s durable popularity but thinks that the firm will be in trouble when she dies. That’s to underestimate the strength of the institution. Freedland doesn’t seem to realise that individual members of the British royal family have been making embarrassing mistakes for centuries without interfering with the respect and affection for the idea of monarchy and the family as a whole. It is a very strange, but resilient, mystique.