Stephen Glover on the press
How do you report the bad news that everybody already knows?
Monday 11 July 2005
By the time I picked up the newspapers on Friday morning, I must have watched seven or eight hours of television, and listened to two or three hours of radio. I may be an exceptional glutton for punishment, but I can't imagine there were many people turning to their papers who did not already know many of the facts inside them. The relatively early hour of the outrage was both an advantage and a disadvantage for the Press - an advantage in that it gave newspapers time to plan and think about their coverage; a disadvantage in that, by the time we came to read them, most of us already knew much of what had gone on.
What does a newspaper do? Looking at Friday morning's crop, so-called upmarket and downmarket, one was struck by the remarkable uniformity of the coverage. There is no re-invention of the wheel on these occasions. The elements of the story can be easily broken down: general overview; accounts of individual incidents with use of striking pictures and eye-witnesses; maps; political reaction at the G8, particularly from Tony Blair and George W. Bush; House of Commons reaction; Al Queda and other possible suspects; previous outrages at home and abroad; international reaction; Muslim reaction, and possible effect on community relations; all manner of columnists striving to say something original; more writerly and descriptive columns that seek to catch the mood of the moment; outraged editorial. There is a lot of ground to cover here, and in a technical sense every newspaper did remarkably well.
But what did a punter get that he had not already got from television and radio? Oddly enough, there were the photographs. One might have thought that television had a monopoly of the visual image, but it is not so. Papers now use full-page colour photographs in way that would have been unimaginable (or technically impossible) ten years ago. The Daily Telegraph and the Guardian cleared whole broadsheet pages, sometimes for single pictures. Then there were the columns, which you obviously don't get on television or radio. It is a huge relief on these occasions not to be asked to write since it is difficult to think of anything original to say. Among the 'think pieces', dear old Max Hastings, I hate to say, stood out in the Daily Mail since he had a strong argument - anti-Bush but equally anti-al-Qa'ida. Most, though not all, papers ran 'what was the effect on me?' pieces, from Tony Parsons in the Daily Mirror to Ian McEwan in the Guardian to John Walsh in the Independent to Matthew Parris in the Times. God, these are difficult articles to write! For my money, Mr Parris's was the least pretentious, the most heartfelt, the most observant and the most humane.
The fear of editors on these occasions is that they may miss something out, or be judged by readers to have underplayed things. The only newspaper that might be so accused was the Financial Times, but it has the solid defence of being a financial, rather than a general, newspaper. Other titles embraced the usual doctrine that the enormity of the coverage should reflect the enormity of the event. Among tabloid-sized newspapers, the Mail had 23 pages, the Sun 23, the Times 27, the Mirror, Express and Independent each 35. (All these figures include advertisements.) The Guardian, a broadsheet with the tabloid G2, came out at the equivalent of 18 broadsheet pages, while the Daily Telegraph topped all-comers with 24 broadsheet pages. Perhaps the two-page centre spread - a map of London with the incidents marked - was, as Bill Deedes would say, a case of over egging the pudding, but I am not going to complain too much. Having spent hours glued to my television, I still had an appetite to read the newspapers, though I am willing to concede I may be mad.
Newspapers battle for gold in the great Olympic U-turn
As has been widely remarked, the euphoria of London winning the Olympics was short-lived. Not realizing that a much bigger story was around the corner, newspapers pushed the boat out.
But they did not always regard the bid in such ecstatic terms. Perhaps rather surprisingly in view of its innate conservatism, the Daily Telegraph has been the only daily newspaper to be consistently and vociferously in favour of London holding the 2012 Games from the inception of the bid. Other titles have more recently jumped on the bandwagon, but when the bid was in its infancy, back in 2001 and 2002, it received little or no encouragement from them, and much ridicule.
The arguments most often trotted out against having the Olympics in London were the risks of terrorism (sensibly enough, in the light of last Thursday's atrocities), a poor transport system and the high costs, as well as the precedent of other public fiascos, most obviously the Millennium Dome. These were - and remain - perfectly reasonable points. London's own newspaper, the Evening Standard, was not an early convert to the cause. On 16 July 2002, it advised readers that "Londoners should think very hard before backing a bid to have the 2012 Olympics here". Not long afterwards it suggested that Manchester might be a worthier home for the Games.
At its sister paper, the Daily Mail, several of the paper's formidable sports columnists lined up against the bid. Jeff Powell, Ian Wooldridge and Robert Hardman were all highly sceptical, and an editorial in 2002 warned that the "Government's backing for the expected bid to host the 2012 Games has the makings of a financial catastrophe". The Times was only slightly more favourable, regretting in November 2002 that London could not co-host the Olympics with New York, while columnists such as Alice Miles and Mary Ann Sieghart were vituperative critics of the bid.
And so it goes on. In January 2003 the Independent warned that "a bid is the last thing that London needs". A month earlier the Financial Times had published a leader under the headline: "No Olympic Gold: The Government should not back London's bid for these games". In December 2002 and January 2003 the Guardian favoured the Games coming here, but in May 2003 it changed its mind in a leader headed: "London 2012: Government backing is a triumph of flawed thinking". The Sun and the Daily Mirror did support the bid, though not until quite late in the day, in May 2003. Several of the Mirror's columnists such as Matthew Norman and Oliver Holt and Mick Dennis poured cold water on the proposal.
What does the new found enthusiasm of newspapers tell us? That they are naturally sceptical. That they change their minds. That public enterprises can proceed in spite of their objections. That they love being associated with success. What interests - and worries - me is not so much that the media are fickle (we all knew that) but that all of their mostly perfectly reasonable reservations should have been forgotten amidst the euphoria. I was taken aback to re-read a column I wrote in May 2003 arguing that "the 2012 Olympics should be a triumph" for London. I can barely recall thinking that, but now that every newspaper is declaring that the Games will be an enormous success I am beginning to wonder whether they will.
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