How many dead nobodies equal one English noble?

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A story popular amongst journalists goes that when the Titanic went down, the Aberdeen Press and Journal ran the headline: Shipwreck in Atlantic - Peterhead Man Drowns. The story is probably untrue, but anyone who has ever been inside a newsroom will know the tendency it illustrates: the pursuit of the local angle. National news organisations are no more immune from this than provincial weeklies. They reflect what they believe to be their audiences' priority of interest. If, say, an overcrowded ferry overturns in Bangladesh and 170 people die, the disaster will get at most one paragraph on an inside page; television news probably won't bother with it at all, unless somebody on the ferry had a camcorder and the presence of mind to airfreight some exciting videotape. If, on the the other hand, a British person is among the dead, then you can expect several paragraphs to appear. Several dead Britons means a story on the front page.

There is no point in being pious about this, regretting our insularity, lack of common humanity and so on. Adam Smith observed more than two centuries ago that if people in Britain got news of a calamitous earthquake in China, they would certainly talk sympathetically of the victims for an evening; they might, more seriously, worry about the consequences to trade; but if one of those same tutting sympathisers were to lose as much as a little finger, he would weep and toss and turn all night. The fact is that large numbers of people throughout the world die unnatural deaths every day. If the casualties of every bomb, shell and car smash were recorded in print, there would be no room left for stories about ... well, about the Princess of Wales gobbling their entrails from the mortuary floor.

Racial feeling obviously plays its part. You may remember the argument deployed by some of this country's most impeccable liberals that the Bosnian tragedy outweighed greater tragedies in Africa because Bosnia was part of Europe and (unstated) the Bosnians were therefore European. But here you could also argue that it was the proximity of the events, rather than the race of the victims, that placed Bosnia higher in the hierarchy of our concerns than, say Somalia, Sudan or Rwanda. News, after all, is always a tussle between the objective and subjective, between what has happened and the likelihood of a particular audience caring about what has happened. And what matters to you may not matter to me, and vice versa.

What I want to know, however, is why last week's newspapers judged a viscount to matter so much to any of us who didn't know him. A week ago a bomb exploded at a hotel in Delhi and killed perhaps as many as 17 people. The dead included an uncertain number of Indians, three Nigerians, a Dutchman, an unspecified European, a young British man and young British woman. The story could have been written and headlined in various ways, from the supra-national (Delhi Bomb Kills up to 17) to the parochial (Two Britons Die in Delhi Bomb Blast), but the angle that made the running in every newspaper I read was that Viscount Weymouth, heir to the Marquess of Bath, was among the undead and unseriously injured. Viscount Hurt as Bomb Kills Girlfriend and Partner, as the Telegraph splashed across the top of page one, though other papers were no different.

I don't want to be callous. The viscount has suffered the loss of two friends and reports suggest that, with expulsion from public school and failure at university behind him, he will be no more useless than his father. But who could possibly think that he was more important, or even more interesting, than the people who died? Perhaps we were to give thanks - the news values of deference - that the young gen'lman had been spared to inherit Longleat. Shipwreck in Atlantic - Many First-class Passengers

Shiver in Lifeboats, as the Telegraph might have put it.

Soon after the Dunblane killings, I overheard the newsagent near my office renewing his supply of a magazine called Combat Handguns in a telephone conversation with his retailer. It's a small and completely unspectacular newsagent's shop in a quiet back street of north London. And yet here, among the Georgian terraces and council flats, live at least two people who choose to pay pounds 2 every month for an American magazine which caters for lethal fantasies, lightly cloaked as the latest information about the weaponry of "self-defense". The current issue, for example, contains on one of its pages three colour pictures of a little girl playing on a lawn with what looks to be a large home-made doll. Not so. The caption reads: "Allison Boyle demonstrates how easily a '3D' target can be rigged up. It starts life as a flat piece of cardboard which is easily folded into the shape of a torso. Balloons are added to chambers in the target to represent the vital area. When the balloons are struck by a bullet, the target falls. Old T-shirts, caps or a mask can be added for realism."

Almost every politician, with the possible exception of the Home Secretary, now wants a complete ban on handguns, and one may come after Lord Cullen has completed his inquiry into Dunblane. But why stop at handguns? It seems to me that the truth about people and guns is a version of the remark Groucho Marx made about himself and clubs. That is, that the people who shouldn't be given guns are the people who want them - the desire itself being prima facie evidence of some troubling mental arrangement. My suggestion to Lord Cullen's inquiry would be that the Government sets up a large, well-publicised gun-licensing authority which is a complete fake. It provides statistics of the large number of licences issued, but in fact - separately and with no attendant publicity - it denies a licence to every applicant. Their applications will, however, be handed over to the secret police, who will keep strict tabs on the unlucky applicants ever after.

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