No, you are not alone, Mr Angry of Radio 4

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On Friday evening, during BBC Radio 4's PM programme, a listener emailed to complain about the coverage of the Pope's impending death. There was far too much of it, the email said, making a lone protest against the tide of sentimentality threatening to engulf the media. It was a rare moment of sanity at a time when rationality and balance have been in very short supply; the prospect of the Pontiff's death and a royal wedding in the same week is almost too much to bear, especially when they follow so closely on the death of Terri Schiavo.

On Friday evening, during BBC Radio 4's PM programme, a listener emailed to complain about the coverage of the Pope's impending death. There was far too much of it, the email said, making a lone protest against the tide of sentimentality threatening to engulf the media. It was a rare moment of sanity at a time when rationality and balance have been in very short supply; the prospect of the Pontiff's death and a royal wedding in the same week is almost too much to bear, especially when they follow so closely on the death of Terri Schiavo.

It isn't that they are not legitimate news stories. I know that for Catholics, the passing of John Paul II is a milestone, signifying the end of an era for the church. Similarly, Ms Schiavo's protracted survival in a vegetative state has ignited a row about euthanasia, which continued after her death on Thursday. What concerns me is the way in which reporting of both these stories has moved into the realm of unreality, an occurrence that seems increasingly common since the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. Her former husband, the Prince of Wales, made one of his characteristic blunders last week, muttering frank comments to his sons about royal reporters during a photo-call in Klosters, which were picked up by a microphone and relayed to an amused nation.

Oddly enough, I suspect that what lies behind Prince Charles's sotto voce critique is the very thing that I am irritated by, which is to say an assumption by much of the media that we are happy to collude in sentimental fantasy. In Charles's case, he is supposed to pretend that he is a nervous, inexperienced bridegroom, rather than a divorced man who is finally about to marry the woman he has been living with for years. The problem for Charles is that he is the least qualified person in the country to make this argument, given that satisfying fantasies is his job - what he is paid for, if you like.

I am making a distinction between real news, which assiduously separates fact from untested assumption, and reporting, which is sycophantic and unbalanced. In the case of Ms Schiavo, huge amounts of air time were given to her parents' fantasy, encouraged by President George Bush, that she was conscious and able to live a full (if limited) life; her husband has been vilified, accused of murder and allegedly had a price put on his head by one particularly crazed opponent of euthanasia. There is a debate to be had about that subject but what I kept hoping to hear was objective reporting of her medical condition, based on the opinions of the doctors who had actually examined her and declared her to be neither conscious nor to have any hope of recovery.

At the same time, as the Pope's condition deteriorated, what should have been a factual story turned into a running commentary that might have been scripted by the Vatican. To Catholics, John Paul II is rapidly acquiring the status of a saint; to many others, he is at best an equivocal figure - someone who opposed Communism but publicly endorsed General Augusto Pinochet, who campaigned against war and poverty but refused to soften the Vatican's line on the use of condoms in the face of the HIV/Aids epidemic in Africa.

If one view is entitled to a hearing, so is the other, but this was an occasion when the rule of de mortuis nil nisi bonum seemed to have been adopted in advance. The BBC broadcast interviews with Vatican officials who declared that the Pontiff was ending his life serenely - an unverifiable claim that was met more with reverence than journalistic inquiry - and even that he had already touched God. Perhaps there is now an official line that the BBC believes in God and, for all I know, the tooth fairy. But it can't be just one or two listeners to the PM programme who wish that news organisations would remember their duty to report real news.

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