Like Ruth amid the alien corn, one large section of the British population must feel that it inhabits a foreign land when it looks at newspapers or television. For there it sees a slavish pandering to the preoccupations of another and larger section of the British population: endless football, and endless reporting of the private lives of celebrities.
Some of the latter are recent products of glaringly voyeuristic "reality TV", and therefore famous for even less reason than the usual run of anorexic pop singers, dieting actresses, oddly coiffeured sportsmen and drunken, drug-raddled radio DJs, who stagger through the flashlit surreality of the tabloids like creatures from the Hammer House of Horror.
It would be natural to think that this frothy charade of pointless notoriety is merely a product of the age, in which canny journalists have found that gratifying human instincts for gossip and scandal is a cheap – and profitable – way of filling the acres of blank newsprint and months of empty airtime which beckon threateningly from their immediate futures.
And so, in one sense, it is. But the Romans had their circuses, a more gruesome (if not by much) form of mass distraction than present-day actresses' diets and divorces. Every age and people has had its dancing bears, mountebanks and freak-shows – which is precisely what our present-day celebrities and their doings are.
Humans are alone among animals in needing high levels of novelty and excitement in their daily experience. Being a spectator of other people's lives figures near the top of the list of what satisfies that craving, especially if the pastime has the form of narrative. At its best, it takes the episodic form of soap-opera, an open-ended, wandering tale which mimics life either (in the case of celebrities) allegedly or (in the case of long-running television serials) frankly – but with a higher rate of problems resulting from infidelity, addiction, success, failure, pregnancy, disaster, and the rest of the staple attractions, than the spectators' own lives provide.
History, or perhaps legend, tells that New York's dockside was crammed with expectant crowds when the final episode of Dickens's Old Curiosity Shop arrived by sea, bringing the emotional drama of Little Nell's death to the New World. At the same time Lancastrian mill girls queued in their clogs and shawls outside the newsagent on Friday nights to buy the latest instalment of Douglas Sladen's Queer Things about Japan, sent from that exotic distance to bring peonies, tinkling bells and mincing geishas into the murk of the English winter.
These same desires fuel the consumption of today's tabloids, but with one difference. When in the 1840s The News of the World was founded, its pages filled with divorces and murders to the delight of one section of the public, the fare it offered was regarded as "low", and everyone from self-improving Mr Pooters to self-important Mr Gladstones affected to look down their noses at it. Courtesy of industrial technology, it offered more widely what had once been confined to pamphlets and "squibs" run off at hand-presses. But its success proved too much for business-minded folk, who saw in the tabloid form and the gossip formula a sure means of profit.
Thus was modern journalism born, and its legacy to us is the infinitely regurgitated matter of the trivial lives of grotesquely thin or culpably fat females who occasionally sing, act, or have babies. It is invariably the long-haired or crop-headed footballers who help them do the latter, and other (or perhaps the same) addicted or rehabilitated persons in love or out of love with one another or with someone else. This is most confusing to the Ruth-like among us, but evidently of such great moment to so many others that the Ruth-like must be missing something.
AC Grayling is reader in philosophy at Birkbeck College, University of LondonReuse content