Michael Williams: Readers' editor

Madonna plus Macedonia means different, not dumb
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The Independent Online

"Dumb, or what?" emails reader Jenna Harte from Chiswick, west London. "I've got used to the endless diet of trivia in the papers these days. But now even the 'IoS' has descended to a celebrity stunt to get the Pakistan elections into the paper. ('My extraordinary encounter with Musharraf'. By Jemima Khan, page 1.) Be honest. The only reason why you give this woman equal billing to the Pakistani leader is because she is young, blonde and glamorous."

Not quite. As the former wife of a leading Pakistani politician herself, Ms Khan has got something serious of her own to bring to the debate. But I hear what you say. "Dumbing down" is a charge often thrown at us and the other "quality" media – and some of the most vocal critics are journalists themselves. Martin Bell famously described the BBC News as "more Madonna than Macedonia". Our own associate editor Paul Vallely has gone to the barricades with Jon Snow and Paul Johnson over the influence of showbiz on news reporting.

So are we doomed – drowning in a sea of tittle-tattle about Amy, Lily, Britney, Paris, Cheryl – and guilty of bigging up the likes of Jemima? Sorry, but I don't buy it. It's nonsense to pretend that celebrity is something new. Even Dickens was a kind of celeb in his day and the latest twist was as much trailed as the latest 'EastEnders'.

News has always had an entertainment value. Otherwise, as one writer put it, you'd be no more likely to buy a newspaper than to attend a sociology seminar. 'The Guardian' editor Alan Rusbridger gets it right in pointing out that the quality press is better than ever – because it can project the popular as well as the serious.

Many who argue the "dumbing down" case are (white, male) journalists of a certain age who pine for a spurious golden era. We should never forget that quality papers used to be stuffier, greyer, more sexist, more deferential, more snobbish, more reactionary and more elitist than they are now.

There's a story told from the days when I was a sub-editor on 'The Times'. A colleague queried some copy by the then economics editor, Peter Jay, saying he couldn't follow the argument. The great man told him brusquely that he was "writing for three people in England – and you aren't one of them!"

The range of coverage is not getting worse or getting dumber. It's just getting different. One distinguished journalist I know says: "Before I file my copy I don't just ask the question, 'Does this interest me or my dinner party friends?' Instead, I ask, 'Does it interest my teenage children?'"

If we want a new generation to find newspapers relevant in a multimedia age, we've got to listen. Does it matter if the price of getting a good show for the Pakistani elections is a picture of Ms Khan on the front page? If it makes a difficult subject more relevant, then it has done its job. (And for all you grumps out there, be grateful it was Jemima and Pervez – not Jemima and Diana.)

Message Board: Are we ruining the English language?

Our report on calls for a national policy on articulacy provoked an impassioned debate on our message board. Here is a selection of responses:

Shan Morgain

We work with teens to explore their language. Interestingly, when I as teacher demonstrate what their strangled speech is like, they hate it! They say I seem much less friendly, much less interesting and beg me to stop.


It's real head in the sand stuff this. Language changes and mutates in many ways; it's not a set text. Next thing you know we'll be told there was a golden age for spelling and grammar. It never existed.


Jakers, we all know this, but it must be said that were a contributor to the 'IoS' to write in adolescent idiomatic text-speak, you would be less than overwhelmed.


Clarity has been disappearing. If people are not now expressing themselves in a way that other people understand, then clearly the quality of language has degenerated.

Neil McGowan

Announcement last week at King's Cross station: "All them passengers that was booked on the 18:30 service can use their tickets on the 19:10 instead." This isn't a question of "changing patterns of usage". This is just WRONG.


What was so good about the 1950s? George Orwell wrote his best work in the 30s. The problem is language evolves continuously and it's impossible for us, immersed in it, to know whether it has "degenerated" or not.


Jakers is right. What do you think about Chaucer? Shakespeare? Joyce? Who wrote the best English? The answer is none of them. English, like all languages, isn't static.


Judging by some of the teachers I have recently heard interviewed on the radio it's TOO LATE. The younger generation of teachers is thoroughly at home with the patois as she is spoken.

To have your say on this or any other issue visit www.independent.co.uk/IoSblogs