Review

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The Independent Culture
John Pilger began his eulogy for British popular journalism in a fitting spot. St Bride's, he noted in Network First (ITV), is "spiritual home to one of London's ungodliest professions". But the truth is that Pilger doesn't really believe that sardonic intensifier. Indeed, barely pausing to draw breath, he went on to demonstrate just how reverential he can be about what he clearly believes to be a vocation, not just a job. The church, he continued, is where journalists come "to say goodbye to one of their own, someone they were proud to know, someone with humanity and humour that touched millions of peoples lives, who gave voice to people and fought their battles". The description of the old-style Mirror that followed was even more religiose in its tone - a portrait of a campaigning, radical newspaper which would never have stooped to gossip or crowd-pleasing frivolity. Some of this was simply partial - the implication that reporting on Kruschev's famous speech about Stalin was a mark of unusual courage, for example - but other details were positively hagiographic. Claire Rayner testified that the old Mirror had taught her to read and Pilger eagerly picked up her lead: "Was the Mirror then the kind of newspaper a child could learn to read from?" he asked piously. Blessed are the poor in spirit; suffer the little children to come unto me - the only thing missing was a miracle, an old-age pensioner to testify that wrapping pages of the Cudlipp Mirror around her legs had cured her arthritis overnight.

This sort of tone, so teary-eyed that it can barely focus, did little service to Pilger's central argument - the incontrovertible truth that popular journalism has been debased since Murdoch entered the scene. He is right to deplore the fact that sentimental opportunism has replaced durable principles, and right to be uneasy about a press that values celebrity and sensation far above information. But he constantly edged away from the uncomfortable truth at the heart of his story. Pilger often refers to "ordinary people", a holy tribe usually invoked in accounts of their betrayal or abandonment by the new media barons. But what sort of people have fuelled Mr Murdoch's satellite television profits, the money from which pays for his predatory attack on rival papers? And what sort of people exactly buy the Mirror and The Sun today, somehow overcoming their natural distaste for the salacious trivia they find inside? It's possible to believe, as Pilger probably does, that "ordinary people" would welcome better papers but you can't simply ignore their daily implication in the current state of affairs. It was, incidentally, something of an irony that this denunciation of lowest common denominator media should come from Carlton, a company currently doing to terrestrial television just what Murdoch has already done to the British press.

Inside Story (BBC1) has not been in the best shape since the beginning of the new series. It started with a messy film about sex spies and followed up with that most flabby of documentary subjects, the arduous training course. But last week's film, about a campaign to identify the whereabouts of paedophiles, was stronger and "Love on the Needle" continued the upward curve. The subject, a man trying to kick a heroin habit, wasn't exactly novel but James Cohen's film was distinguished both by its casting and its allusive imagery. Watching James Hall flying a kite before he went into detox you realised you were looking at an odd sort of metaphor for his addiction - an exalted freedom that depends on captivity. Similarly the recurring shots of tube tunnels offered a hallucinatory vision of the urban veins along which drugs travel, on their way to their needy receptors.

But it wouldn't have had half the emotional impact it did without the presence of James's wife Natalie, whose beauty and loyalty amplified the awful sense of waste. His addiction you could understand - a conventional tale of paternal hurt (which he was effectively replicating) and escalating drug use. But her addiction to him was far more mysterious.

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