Tuesday, April 10, 2007

I hate the news

Dead Pope John Paul is halfway to becoming a Saint. Apparently a nun with Parkinson's Disease wrote his name down on a piece of paper and she was magically cured. The Catholic top brass in Rome have declared it an official miracle, and now John Paul only has one more to go and then he gets to be sainted. It's so crazy you couldn't make it up. And more worrying, the more "sane" religious people, including Tony Blair, have kept very tight-lipped about it all. Why aren't derisive howls of laughter being directed towards the Vatican?

Most of the time, I would probably describe myself as a Guardian reading, Alpen eating, leftie liberal. But I don't agree with liberal politics exclusively. The problem is, that liberals end up trying to please and appease so much, that weird paradoxes result, particularly when they try to show tolerance towards groups that are actually very intolerant themselves (like many organised religions). A number of news stories over the past few months have resulted in some rather bizarre debates, where, (to me at least) the "answer" should be pretty obvious. Should female teachers be banned from wearing the hijab? Should parents be banned from smacking children in shops? Should the Mayor of London have apologised for slavery? One thing that news-makers like to do is "present a balanced story" - even when it's actually not that balanced. Take yesterday's "scandal" over those captured British armed forces personnell selling their stories to the media. For a short time, that became the bigger story than the story itself. Should they have sold their story? The news was full of the fact that "critics" had complained about it. I listened to the tv news for a good few minutes before it transpired that these critics were a handful of relatives of soldiers who'd been killed in Iraq. It made me wonder whether such "critics" themselves had been sought out by newspapers who'd failed to secure exclusives with the captured military personell and were now indulging in a bit of sour grapes reporting of their own.

News-makers are desperate to sell papers and they attempt to manufacture and shape "news" whenever possible, if it will result in more sales. And people rarely seem to be aware of how much news is actually just public relations or advertising fluff. As an academic, I occasionally get to see the "other side" of news-making. This is how it works. A business who produces a product such as computer games, a soft drink, mobile phones etc will get a PR firm to approach an academic on their behalf, and ask them to conduct some "research" into a particular subject. The academic will be then paid (usually a few thousand pounds) to do a "study" on something - which could involve giving out a questionnaire to a few students. Sometimes the PR firm will cut out the middle man and do the "research" themselves. The research is usually vaguely related to the product that the company want to sell. After that, a press release is put out which offers the research as "news". It gets reported in many newspapers, on the radio, and on the web. The BBC news website usually has at least one of these "news" stories every day. They often involve statistics such as "1 in 5 people have moved house due to neighbours from hell" or "formulae" such as one for making the perfect bacon butty. Often, the advertiser's name or product being sold is worked into the article somewhere. It looks like news - it's backed up with the name of an academic and some statistics - but it's actually an advert. Academics don't get paid that much, and most of them are rather vain - so they like getting their names in the media - we also get told we should try and "engage with the community" - there is some justification them for prostituting themselves with such ridiculous bits of "research".

But the more I learn about the news, the less I trust it. It's a big con.


Trashbinder said...

It's all double standards when it comes to sharing military information with the media. One of the news stations I watched yesterday had a comment from a former naval officer who said that he had been forbidden from discussing his involvement in a serious incident in the first gulf war, but his senior officer ended up giving a sanitised version to one of the tabloids and the navy scooped a big payment instead of the small group of individuals directly involved.

There's also a big part of me that really wonders if we did deliberately stray into Iranian territory. Our government would hardly be inclined to tell the truth, given the track record for honesty since the Iraqi war commenced four years ago.

I really thought I was being a little extreme when I voiced an opinion at work that I thought the US and UK were no better than some of the dictatorships in the world that the west view as loose cannons. Will history show Blair and Bush as war criminals in years to come?

Nixon said...

This cartoon says it all.

KAZ said...

I've been sceptical of 'research' published in the press for some time now. This is especially the case when it's something you want to hear e.g. coffee is good for you or a glass of red wine - etc.
You have confirmed my suspicions are well founded.