All right then - so what's the story?

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The Independent Culture
The gleeful shaming of public figures described by Brian Cathcart on the front page of this section does indeed seem, in times such as these, like a coconut shy. Most of the media and much of the public queue up, laughing with glee, to have a go. In this context it is not altogether surprising that the subjects of this public pillorying are usually described as "fair game". Royals, politicians, celebrities - they are all "fair game". They have fingered the double-edged sword of publicity; why should anyone care if they fall on it?

But "fair game" is an interesting and suggestive phrase. The Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable defines it first of all as being an available subject for "banter", but it clearly originates (like that other reliable standby - "open season") in the robust and unforgiving sport of shooting. But the game that people enjoy taking potshots at - pheasant, partridge, grouse and deer - is not in range by chance. It has been carefully bred and ripened; it has all but been placed in the shy. The idea that it is in any sense a "fair" contest is deeply traditional, to say the least. The birds may have wings, but we have twelve-bores; and a quail, pecking eagerly at the nice corn provided for it by an eager gamekeeper, does not always suspect that in taking the king's shilling he is becoming "fair". Without wishing to stretch a point, it isn't very fair on the fowl.

There are other ironies. The whole point of a game - any game - is that there are two sides playing it. And you could say much the same thing about a story. In marital or sexual disputes above all there are two parties involved, and two versions of "the story". And this is why the rise and rise of cheque-book journalism - the paying of one or other side for "their" story, has proved both so popular and so corrosive.

Has there ever been a good story that required big payments for exclusivity? It is one of the dismaying facts about British culture that the only serious resource of investigative journalism we have is deployed mainly in the expensive pursuit of famous people's sexual lapses. But it is an even sadder aspect of our national life that the very idea of a story has degenerated into something so one-eyed.

Stories, like infidelities, contain and are often rooted in conflict: that is where the drama lies. When children "tell stories", we happily accomodate them as being fibs or lies. In this sense they are not much different from the kind of stories proposed by fiction: inventions, fantasies, imaginary tales. But it used to be that "stories" in journalism relied on the friction between opposing ideas of where the truth lay. These days, "stories" more often than not means "accusations". It is a one-dimensional procedure, and anything but a fair game. And we ought not to forget that the other word for a one-sided, paid-for story, of course, is: an advert.

This week, the Sun's now-notorious emergence from the closet to admit that it was no longer in the business of gay-bashing was in a way the logical outcome of this modern way of telling "stories". It is even a rather sophisticated response to a modern truth, which is that there is no such thing as "the story" - only rival accounts of it. In taking first one side, then the other, the newspaper was merely acting as a mouthpiece for competing factions, without intervening (except to exaggerate). If it wasn't anti, then by definition it had to be pro - impossible to conceive of there being a middle way, in which some stories have merit and some do not.

Certainly, it put some of the Sun's own writers into a tailspin. On the very day of its ultra-liberal declaration it featured, as if to prove the point, a rather ham-fisted headline highlighting the claims of a beleagured fireman: "I'd rather be gay than black". Was this an improvement? The next morning Richard Littlejohn felt sufficiently unbound by the new local rules to make a few lame jokes about "cottagers" and "irons".

None of that is surprising. But the most striking effect is that this public shooting gallery is, like shooting, anything but fair. There is a cycle involved, and it is a vicious one. To qualify as fair game we must first attain celebrity; but celebrity is something conferred only by media attention. It is we who feed and fatten our calves for ritual slaughter, we who gasp in astonishment when they fall with a thump into the mud. And when it is all over back we troop to our bothies for dinner, just like the grandees in their Barbour jackets and cavalry twill, and raise a glass to the fine sport we have enjoyed. It was hard work; it was invigorating; and it took our minds off our own troubles for a moment.