Sarah Sands: A two-minute video is all the truth I need

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The Independent Online

The publisher Caroline Michel explained the new business model to me over lunch last week. The important thing to grasp was that a book was no longer the starting point. These days the deal could begin with something as instant as a video clip. The video clip could lead to a book. The book could lead to a film.

She sent me off to look at "A Lion Called Christian", a sort of Born Free YouTube posting with an audience so big that Michel swiftly reprinted the story behind it and set out to negotiate film rights. A short video clip may lack the kind of epic quality that prompted the creativity of Antony Beevor's D-Day, but it is more virally friendly. About 44 million people watched "A Lion Called Christian".

I am not sure how I had missed the lion, for browsing video clips has become as habitual for me as reading newspapers. In our house, it took over from television months ago. I go to The First Post for film trailers and viral ad campaigns. I go to the BBC website for news, knowing that I would be able to watch the whole of Westminster's Titus Andronicus on Friday, boiled down to five video clips. President Obama's speech in Cairo, based on substance and reason and subtle understanding of human nature rather than rough old office politics, took longer to digest.

Inevitably, the most popular video clips are football goals, snatches of music or – universally – comedy. The current clips that I regard as my "A Lion Called Christian" are Sacha Baron Cohen, in character as Bruno the gay fashion designer, dropping into Eminem's lap at the MTV awards and Boris Johnson, in character as Boris, dropping into a river during a photo opportunity.

Bruno's descent from the ceiling in angel wings and a thong may have been authorised and choreographed, but pushing his bare bottom into Eminem's face showed truly subversive invention. The rapper has been congratulated for taking part in the joke, but it was Baron Cohen who had the Swiftian wit to imagine it.

Boris is another, perhaps even greater, ambassador for British comedy, with perfect timing for the pratfall. He appears at the edge of the river bed. A broadcaster shouts at him to stay where he is for the camera shot. He hesitates, a blond rhino, and moves forward. He misjudges the depth of the water and sinks, cooing sorrowfully to himself: "Oooh no." The environmentalist with him then throws herself into the water in an act of futile solidarity. I must have watched this clip 30 times and still snort with laughter.

Whether rehearsed, ad-libbed or real, the video demands a peculiar authenticity that is beyond some participants. It is what Virginia Woolf might have called a moment of being. It is a complete fragment that offers a greater truth. Gordon Brown may retain sufficient power to scare his remaining Cabinet members, but his Talibanese style does not wash on the internet.

Perhaps Hazel Blears paid with her political fortunes for mocking her leader's appearance on YouTube, but hers was a simple human response. If you smile you have to mean it. By contrast, Prince Charles banging on about the rainforests with a toy frog on his shoulder was being true to himself.

Our attention spans have grown too short, but there is pleasure in the immediacy of these clips. I admire those who can extend their lives into books and films, but for me the joy is that video offers the distilled present, then nothing.

Sarah Sands is deputy editor of the London Evening Standard