Images are powerful signifiers: sometimes dull and relevant should trump playful

Was this, some readers asked, an attempt to sex up and dumb down?



Sometimes you hear (pompous) people wondering aloud why the tabloid market cannot be more serious. The answer is that newspapers each cater for a specific audience: Sun readers choose their paper because it’s The Sun, not in spite of the fact.

Very occasionally, I receive emails from Independent readers who believe we are becoming less serious. In general, that assertion has little basis. There is a place in the paper for light-heartedness and, dare one say it, even gobbets of celeb news from time to time. But since its redesign last autumn, The Independent has more space for longer-form analysis and essays. It is a meaty read.

Another feature of the redesign was to give renewed focus to photography. Great images alongside insightful copy reduce the need for gimmicks.

However, the juxtaposition of words and pictures can raise its own questions, even when neither on their own are inherently of concern. Last week, a straightforward item about the investment potential of a project involving solar panels on schools was illustrated with a photograph of the 2007 St Trinian’s film cast. The image, as anyone who has seen the movie (and probably most who haven’t) might expect, showed a group of schoolgirls clad in stockings, suspenders, short skirts and attitude.

Alongside a review of the film, the picture would have raised neither eyebrows nor hackles. It is, at worst, no more intrinsically inappropriate than the entire concept of St Trinian’s – and the 2007 film had a 12A certificate, so we’re not talking much raunchiness.

But when used to illustrate a report about solar panels, a number of readers queried whether it was fitting. Was this, some asked, an attempt to sex up and dumb down?

This column does its best to avoid being po-faced and a publicity shot from a fairly silly and very modestly risqué film does not raise the greatest ethical dilemma in the world. But, still, its use on this occasion was incongruous at best. The online version of the article is now accompanied by a dull, but relevant, picture of some solar panels.

Monty Python misfire

Some things in life are bad; they can really make you mad. Even Monty Python quotes can make you swear and curse.

A rather beautiful  front-page photo on Easter Saturday showed Christian pilgrims carrying crosses over the tidal causeway to Holy Island. It was headed thus: “Crucifixion? Out of the door, line on the left, one cross each”.

The Independent has, since its establishment, taken an editorial position that the roles of church and state should be entirely separate. But while the paper is often secularist in its outlook, it does not set out to mock religious belief.

It is true that sneering sarcasm about established religion – particularly Anglicanism, because it is an easy target – is sometimes mistaken for wit by those who produce it. But our use of a well-known quote from the Life of Brian, itself a film that is fundamentally not blasphemous, was not intended to deride.

It has always struck me as a great virtue of the Church of England (and I say this as an active member) that it can laugh at itself and take a joke when it is genuinely funny, even if unoriginal. The only problem with quoting from popular culture is that not everybody recognises the words. The Life of Brian may be the most quotable film of all time but it is 35 years old. For those not in the loop, the headline might have seemed a tad mean-spirited to say the least. To you, our apologies and a wafer-thin mint on the house.

Will Gore is Deputy Managing Editor of The Independent, i, Independent on Sunday and the Evening Standard Twitter: @willjgore

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