How soon before we forget Baby Abbie?

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The Independent Online
THERE was an intriguing story tucked away towards the back of the News of the World this week. Another victim of the flesh-eating bacterial infection necrotising fasciitis had apparently been discovered. This event merited eight lines on page 25. How are the mighty fallen] A headliner only months ago - a star of every front page - Superbug had become yesterday's virus.

But this isn't an isolated case. What happened to necrotising fasciitis is a symptom of a wider disease. Its journey - from overkill to undernourishment in 100 days - is now the standard life-cycle of a news story. Recent victims or beneficiaries include Michael Jackson, Stephen Milligan, Bosnia, adulterous Tory MPs, D-Day, John Major, Rwanda, James Bulger, Alan Clark, Bill Clinton, John Smith. The next three recipients of this treatment can already be identified: OJ Simpson, Tony Blair, Baby Abbie.

This is not a complaint about trivialisation of news. Most of the above stories had at least a kernel of urgency in them. My point is that, in the supermarket of news, the rules of packaging and shelf-life have been substantially rewritten in the past year.

A headline subject now experiences two phases of coverage: Giganticism and Amnesia. There has always been an element of this - journalism has long been infamous for failing to provide an after-sales service on the stories it flogs to people - but the embrace of a virgin story now seems more passionate and violent, and the dismissal more sudden than had ever been the case before.

Many old journalists, for example, were heard to mutter that their newspapers had given more coverage to the 50th anniversary of D-Day than to D-Day itself, and this is a joke which holds a truth. Newspapers and television companies seem increasingly to court their consumers not with the come-on of content but of size and time allotted to a story. 'Eight-page supplement', 'the whole of our programme tonight', 'in a specially extended bulletin' - these are the media salesman's phrases of today.

Hence American television viewers in the first week of July were offered no other news story except the case of the murder defendant OJ Simpson. And the extent of the coverage of any story seems dictated not by the amount of information available, but by dimensions as an end in themselves. The pages and pages of coverage in recent days of the return of Baby Abbie spread a few facts very thinly, as, previously, had the reporting of the death of Stephen Milligan MP. The blanket television coverage on the day of John Smith's death was largely an endless repetition of the same reports and interviews, but clearing the schedules was seen as the only way of recognising the story's importance.

And yet the subsequent period of Amnesia is as extreme as the Giganticism. After a few days of apparently being the most important story of the year, if not the decade, these front- page players, these headline superstars disappear completely. The recurrent use of the phrase 'Lest we forget' throughout the acres of D-Day coverage was splendidly disingenuous, because the subject is entirely forgotten between handy round-number anniversaries. And, abandoned by the producers of journalism, these stories seem to be just as quickly forgotten by the consumers. The manner of Stephen Milligan's demise - perhaps the most reported accidental death in modern history - was never a factor in the by-election it caused, with candidates even being asked by voters why a poll was taking place. Dead merely nine weeks, John Smith already seems to belong to some distant epoch.

So why have these changes occurred? Giganticism, I think, has two causes - one technological, one commercial.

First, journalism goes big now because it can. As many cultural changes result from improvements in equipment as from intellectual will. The creation of sudden six-page supplements, of 12-hour rolling news shows, happens partly because such journalism has been made more possible by the rise of the microchip.

Second, increased commercial competition in the media has led editors to seek to offer value for money. An eight-page supplement] A two-hour special] This fear of missing out to the opposition also encourages editors to follow the pack on a story rather than to exercise individual judgement on its importance. Thus, everyone does the same, and everybody does a lot.

In Britain, this trend has been encouraged by the fact that almost no newspaper or news show can be sure of the loyalty of its audience in the way that it would have been a few years ago. The newspaper price war begun by Rupert Murdoch has created an unprecedented volatility of readership, with, for example the Daily Express losing readers to the now- cheaper Times, once an unthinkable reader switch. A BBC news editor now competes for viewers against a less-regulated ITV and an unregulated BSkyB. No longer certain of their audience, editors become less likely to spike, or downplay, a story thought important by others.

These developments have cultural consequences. Giganticism threatens legal processes. The chances of a fair trial for OJ Simpson or the woman charged with abducting Baby Abbie have clearly been diminished by the avalanche of facts and half-facts in the initial reporting. In the pressure to fill space and lead the field, reporting protocols are abandoned. Suspects in the Baby Abbie case were named and pictured within hours.

Amnesia means that, like someone who falls asleep halfway through a film, consumers carry in their heads a confusion of half- plots. Is necrotising fasciitis still killing people? Has Bill Clinton survived Whitewater? Who knows? Don't watch those spaces to find out.

And - most important - scandal or incompetence becomes easier for a public figure to survive. The pattern of modern reporting - a three- or four-day storm followed by a long lull - means that, if the subject can ride out the early fire, recovery can be achieved. Hartley Booth, involved in a front- page scandal only months ago, was able to give a routine interview on other matters to Radio 4 yesterday without embarrassment. And the Clinton presidency has been a series of media frenzies divided by long plateaus of normality. Long attritional journalistic campaigns, such as those on Watergate or thalidomide, become less likely.

And that is why necrotising fasciitis now languishes on page 25, despite performing exactly the same act it did a few months ago. But, unfortunately, the paper-eating media viruses of Giganticism and Amnesia seem likely to dominate the front pages for rather longer.

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