Notebook: Take a simple story and watch it grow

Click to follow
LAST MONDAY morning, a television researcher rang to ask if I would like to take part in a discussion about President Clinton's videotape evidence which was scheduled for late that night. As I know no more about Bill Clinton than the average reader of a British newspaper - have no extra dimension of information or opinion - my answer came easily enough.

There are good, if usually self-serving, reasons to appear on television chat shows and documentaries: to advertise yourself, to advertise your product, to get something off your chest, to put a point of view that might otherwise not be put, to earn a little money.

But none of them apart from the last seemed to apply here, and in any case I would rather have a tooth pulled than get into a television studio (I will always remember Edwina Currie, as the interviewer/host of some pointless studio- audience show in Nottingham, putting her hand on my knee during the commercial break, half-way through the interview, and whispering: "Don't be so defensive!").

That night I watched the programme, which had a presenter and three guests in the studio and more people fed in from Washington. I guessed that the slot I might have filled was occupied by a man who either did not have much to say, or had and was never given much chance to say it. Nothing suggested that he had studied the affair longer or harder and knew more about it than me, you or the Everyman now known as Worcester Woman, formerly the Man on the Clapham Omnibus.

He did not make a fool of himself. He was perfectly pleasant. It was just difficult to know why he was there - why, in fact, any of them in the studio were there. If the tape was important - and everybody agreed that it was - then why not simply play an edited version of the tape for a couple of hours and let the audience judge Mr Clinton's performance for itself?

The answer is fear; not, at least in this case, the fear that unmediated information will provoke riots in the streets or that the public are too stupid to understand it; but the fear among television executives that the public will be bored, that they will switch off, that the ratings will go down, and then the advertising revenue, and then perhaps the station itself.

And so we have this excitable thing called "good television", where the camera never rests on one face for more than a minute, where (the producers have their fingers crossed) some kind of argument will break out briefly among the guests, and where (if things get too dull in the studio) the satellite link can beam us in another opinion from elsewhere. As a medium of enlightenment it is almost entirely useless. The great paradox of this "information age" is that information, as opposed to opinion, theory and speculation, is so very hard to come by.

JOAN DIDION writes very well about the Clinton-Lewinsky affair in next week's issue of the New York Review of Books. I do not mean the affair itself. That can be easily expressed: man has sex with office junior half his age; man lies about it. Didion's piece is disguised as a review of Kenneth Starr's report (referral to the United States House of Representatives pursuant to Title 28, United States Code, price $595), but is actually a most brilliant study of the media's role in inflating what began, on 18 January this year, as an unsourced story on the Internet about Ms Lewinsky's allegations.

The word "role" here is misleading, as though human behaviour (politics, say) and what the media mainstream chooses to select as important about it can somehow still be separated; in fact, the two have been thoroughly conflated - ask any spin doctor.

As Didion writes: "The current crisis in American politics began as and remains a situation in which a handful of people, each of whom believed that he or she had something to gain (a book contract, a scoop, a sinecure as a network "analyst", contested ground in the culture wars, or, in the case of Starr, the justification of his failure to get either of the Clintons on Whitewater), managed to harness the phenomenon and ride it."

Crucial to this or any other large media phenomenon is "the story", or what these days we more grandly call "the narrative". Many events are too sudden, shapeless or complex to provide one. Popular stories need simplicity - sex in the office, Clinton v Starr - and the time to develop.

A story has to go somewhere. If the Princess of Wales had been buried on the day she died, the Diana phenomenon would have been smaller and briefer: the week between her death and her funeral allowed plot and character to grow. There have been many larger disasters at sea than the Titanic, but for the purposes of entertainment they tend, neglectfully, to be too sudden; one reason for the success of the Titanic (as a story) is the predicament faced and endured by the people on board in the two hours the ship took to sink.

As to the Clinton story, it would not of course exist without Mr Starr's obsessive investigation, but in the presentation of the results the independent prosecutor seems to have obeyed old advice from E M Forster (What does the novel do? "Yes - oh dear, yes - the novel tells a story").

His report, or at least the narrative sections of it, were written by an aspiring novelist, Stephen Bates. It is, as Didion points out, not so much a careful legal document as "Monica's Story" with Monica as the unreliable narrator: "I left [Clinton] that day sort of emotionally stunned. I just knew he was in love with me."

Does the Clinton story matter then? Obviously: the President could still go. But it has been made to matter, and not it would seem by the American population at large, that tiresomely invoked generality "the American people" (less than 50 per cent of whom - or of those eligible - bothered to vote in the last presidential election).

Media economics and media needs have played the vital part. Didion again: "The cost of producing a television show on which [a moderator] referees an argument between an unpaid `former federal prosecutor' and an unpaid `legal scholar' is significantly lower than that of producing conventional programming. The explosion of `news comment' programming occasioned by this fact necessitates, if viewers are to be kept from tuning out, non- stop breaking stories on which the stakes can be raised hourly. The Gulf War made CNN, but it was the trial of O J Simpson that taught the entire broadcast industry how to perfect the pushing of the stakes."

THANKS TO the rapid advances in media technology, compelling, easily understood stories such as Clinton and Simpson (and Louise Woodward, although nobody in that case bothered much with the evidence) become global upas trees, blighting everything in their shade. But the techniques of media story-telling also serve humbler and sometimes more benign causes. I am thinking of the annual Booker Prize, the shortlist for which has just been announced.

In terms of cash, there are many bigger literary prizes than the Booker (pounds 20,000 to the winner), but none that manages the story so well. First, the long list, which officially does not exist, is carefully leaked. Then comes the shortlist of six; enter the odds from Ladbrokes and William Hill. The come the arguments among the judges; more leaking. And then the climax; some punditry and (with luck) rudeness from the studio, followed by a cut to the dinner and the sight of one triumphant writer rising from his or her chair, while another five try to be brave over their coffee.

A cruel business, but nobody has found a better way of making literary novels more interesting - other than, possibly, reading them.

Who deserves to win this year? I have no opinion, not having read all six books. Who will win? The bookies' early favourite is Ian McEwan. I would put my house (on second thoughts, your house) on Beryl Bainbridge.

FINALLY, A thought about the after-life of the big story. How long does it take for its comic potential to be realised? In some cases the jokes are immediate: Clinton, Simpson. In other cases, usually those that involve death, jokes remain taboo for much longer. I remember my father's distaste at a Goon Show which featured the Tay Bridge disaster, which in his childhood (although the disaster had occurred long before) remained in Scotland a matter for sadness.

Last week, I think I spotted something of a breakthrough in an episode of BBC2's Rab C Nesbitt, in which the good people of Govan were weeping at the death in a car crash of a famous Govan country-and-western chanteuse, much to the disgust of Rab C. After the funeral, his wife wonders if things can ever be the same again: the public grieving about this woman they didn't know had given Govan such a "new sense of community".

It was very funny - a genuine satire on a year-old event, dangerously and pleasingly radical about the temporary worshippers of Her Holiness. It could not have been made in London - here it would have become a story (BBC Comedy Mocks Diana Grief) in itself.