Football, sex, and squirrels. Any chance of a royal angle?

A news editor's brain is just a set of buttons. David Randall considers the dream yarn that presses them all
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The Independent Online

It might be thought, by those who have never encountered Fleet Street news editors in full phlegm-flecked cry, that their brains are complex organisms, constantly calibrating the affairs of state against the needs of their papers.

It might be thought, by those who have never encountered Fleet Street news editors in full phlegm-flecked cry, that their brains are complex organisms, constantly calibrating the affairs of state against the needs of their papers.

In fact, and I speak as one who has carried out this hapless function on three national newspapers, a news editor's brain is but a rudimentary affair. After all, if you are running the news pages of a mass market paper, subtlety is not your friend.

Instead, there exists inside the head of every news editor a series of buttons, each one representing elements in the ideal story. They are best imagined as a series of organ stops, arranged according to contemporary tastes. Thus, today, you would find on the top rank: celebrity, sex, football and television; on the second tier: royalty, animals, chefs, housing values, and shopping; on the third, those former top rankers: aristocrats, scoutmasters, Harry Potter, and vicars; and so on, right down to the bottom rank: policy statements, local government, deserving but celebrity-free causes, and Iain Duncan Smith.

Of course, their arrangement varies according to the paper (for The Daily Telegraph, transpose aristocrats with footballers), but the general principle applies: the more stops pulled, the greater the interest. Imagine, therefore, the frisson of excitement when the following story hit news desks last week: football star Wayne Rooney's fiancée argues with her famous man about Sunday paper revelations concerning a prostitute, throws away her £25,000 engagement ring in a nature reserve, which bans locals from hunting for it, lest they disturb the rare, red squirrels.

Here, all at once, on the very verge of August, was: celebrity, sex (implied), a row, the vice industry, lost treasure, and cuddly animals. Get the local bishop to condemn the couple (or the "something-for-nothing" society represented by the treasure hunters), find a royal angle ("Get on to Charlie's office," desks might have told reporters, "and tell 'em Rooney's bird's been lobbing things at endangered animals"), and the yarn would have come close to that news editors' holy grail: The Story That Has Everything.

Alas, it stayed a mere six-buttoner; but it was a noble effort. The leader in the clubhouse, I have long thought, is this from the News of The World: "Nudist Welfareman's Model Wife Fell For The Chinese Hypnotist From The Co-Op Bacon Factory". Very few buttons unpushed there. Ditto the headline which journalist Steve Robles claims to have once written on a Melbourne crime story: "Vampire Man-whore Murdered While On Trial For Savage Attack On Woman Accused of Luring Him Into Snuff Film".

Of course, it is not always how many buttons are pressed, but how hard. Consider this, perhaps the ultimate wildlife and royalty story, from The Sport: "Killer Plants Stalk Queen Mum". As it turned out, the plants in question were rampant rhododendrons smothering other species as they spread to, among other places, Windsor Great Park - thus "threatening" the Queen Mum's habitat. Something of a cheat, therefore. And speaking of cheating, not even US supermarket tabloid World Weekly News can make up The Story That Has Everything. Best recent efforts include: "Abe Lincoln's private porno collection found", and "I was Sexually Molested By A Female Bigfoot".

The mythical all-purpose Fleet Street fantasy story used to be: "Sex-change vicar in mercy dash to Palace corgis", but that now has a distinctly old-fashioned ring to it. Today's all-button pusher would go something like this: "Sven and Madonna in three-in-a-bed romp with Big Brother nympho as Blair admits to pre-op Queen: WMD never existed". Now that should shift a few copies.

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