22 November 2008

The sound and the fury

Newspapers are very angry places to be at the moment. Frustrated because no-one reads them anymore, their obsolete technology is lost on an entire generation of young people who simply do not read the daily press. Circulations are falling through the basement, and they are reduced to hawking their editions through the lure of tie-in promotions: free DVDs, health spas, discount vouchers, anything as long as it isn't associated with reading the printed word.

Recently they have hit upon a new strategy - creating a climate of anger, harnessing the public reaction, and riding it like a bucking bronco until the next object of bile comes along. In an attempt to appear relevant, online versions of the same press encourage the world to join in the hate - email your views, sign a petition. In London, free newspapers are given out on the streets every evening that consist mainly of the opinions of its readers, the angrier the view, the more likely its chance of publication.

There is no consideration of the implications for this spleen venting beyond the next month's ABC figures, but it seems to be a model in tune with times of uncertainty and economic depression. If we were riding the crest of a booming economy, with the prospects of jam tomorrow instead of bread and dripping, I can't think that the whole Ross/Brand phone pranks story would have garnered the interest it did. Of the 30,000 people who complained to the BBC, about 29,998 never thought to complain until prompted to do so by the media. They bought the papers, logged on to the YouTube postings to enjoy the permission granted by the press to get angry.

This week saw the strategy descend into bathos, as the same set of journos at the start of the week were telling us to be angry about the death of an abused child that, by the end of the same week, urged us to rage about a contestant on Saturday night TV show. There is no quality control - the anger itself is the main thing. So far half a million people have signed a petition with The Sun newspaper following the death of Baby P at the hands of his parents that is revealing in its vagueness: rather than a reasoned assessment of where the fault lies before judgement is made, it demands a mass sacking of anyone who went near the case.

Some might argue this is good for democracy - that at least getting angry is better than the indifference of a non-voting population that feels unengaged with the political process. Personally, I feel P.J. O'Rourke put it best:

"The idea of a news broadcast was once to find someone with information and broadcast it. The idea now is to find someone with ignorance and spread it around."

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