Sunday, September 19, 2021
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A day in the life of a bogus newspaper story

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PEOPLE wonder why newspapers have such difficulty telling the truth about the pandemic. This shows a fundamental misunderstanding of newsgathering and the mindset it instils in journalists. Their objective is not the unalloyed truth, but a good story in which truth – or some of it – may emerge as an accidental by-product.

Whoever wrote that truth is indivisible never worked on a newspaper. (It was Franz Kafka, who should have known better – he trained as a lawyer.) Consider the following:

                                 Vicar hits wife with mallet

A vicar hit his wife with a mallet before his packed congregation on the tiny Hebridean island of Uig yesterday. At a champagne reception later, the Rev John Atkins was applauded by 30 guests.

It’s a compelling story, with an irresistible headline that mixes clerical instability with the cruel humour of Punch and Judy. Demoted and shortened to a ‘news in brief’ item between editions, it succeeds in avoiding a direct lie while omitting a few salient facts that would cast a different light on proceedings. The original version read as follows:

                          Vicar hits wife with ‘mallet’

In an ancient ceremony yesterday to celebrate the renewal of his wedding vows, a vicar lightly struck his wife with a mallet, the local term for a mullet, in front of his packed congregation on the tiny Hebridean island of Uig. At a champagne reception later, the Rev John Atkins was applauded by 30 guests when he submitted to his wife’s reciprocal smack with the fish, a recent innovation.

The first example is an extreme illustration of the newspaper maxim ‘Don’t let the facts get in the way of a good story’. The headline was once offered up to trainee journalists as the perfect come-on. The rest is pure invention – it’s codswallop. Or so one might believe, but Googling the headline turns up a worrying number of hits. It seems that being struck with a real mallet is an occupational hazard among vicars’ wives.

A mullet rots from the head, as do newspapers. Editors have no excuse for the lies and omissions that characterise their coverage of the lucrative protection racket known as Covid-19. Hopefully they will one day have to account for their actions. But why do their journalists, who must know the score, acquiesce without a murmur?

A charitable view is that they become desensitised by the violence done to their work. News is a commodity, to be squeezed and chopped into different lengths, like salami. Reporters know that however richly spiced their story, it will often emerge in print as a homogenised product not unlike Spam.

No wonder they stay mute about the pandemic scandals. There is only a difference of degree between their newspaper’s routine omission of stories that challenge its editorial line and turning a blind eye to Britain’s humanitarian tragedy. ‘Let someone else breach the dam and then we’ll all pile in’ would be a typical reaction.

Lazy journalism has proliferated during the pandemic. At set feeding times every day, journalists are thrown basketfuls of government statistics and – as a special treat – the occasional adulterous minister. It’s enough to keep them busy for another 24 hours.

They can console themselves that an article is merely a snapshot. However, even a small photograph will often convey the background, mood and context of the subject, whereas there is seldom room to cram all these elements into article.

Consider the brief life cycle of an article before it ends up on the floor of rabbit hutches. The important point to grasp is that a newsroom is an auction house in which everyone is in competition with each other. There is finite space to fill; many are called but few are chosen.

Early in the day someone from the newsdesk will drop by and ask a reporter – let’s call her Polly – if she has a story. It may be a mere sniff of a story, with little substance as yet, but to make such a foolish admission could lead to a menial assignment with the loss of her byline. And bylines mean bonuses, or at least survival.

So Polly pitches hard, talking up her promising outline. This is conveyed to the news editor and ever upwards to the assistant editor (news), losing nothing in the telling, until it reaches the editor’s morning conference . . .

Where the bidding intensifies. News is pitted against Politics, Business, Sport and sometimes Fashion and Showbusiness, all hustling for prime spots near the front of the paper. It’s a weak news day and Polly’s story, spun by the news editor’s silver tongue, acquires unmerited value. This is quite an achievement, especially since the editor is one of those bullying tyrants who routinely throws stories and layouts out of his pram.

At her desk, Polly has made her story grow, but not in the direction she had anticipated; the original premise turned out to be false. The news editor, still smarting from the editor’s tongue-lashing, reacts angrily to this development. ‘I’ve announced your story to the editor. How can I tell him it’s b******s?’ he demands. But the original story didn’t work, Polly protests. ‘Make it work,’ he instructs.

To make it work, Polly has to turn the story upside down, omitting the inconvenient facts that disprove it. Then she submits it to the meat grinder known as the sub-editors’ table, where any impurities that offend house style are removed. Finally, the lawyers manage to extract their pound of flesh.

Her story is no longer salami – it’s baloney.

It’s a short step from writing baloney to writing government propaganda. Recruits to the French Resistance were given the torn halves of membership cards as irrefutable proof they had not collaborated. Journalists will have to tear up an awful lot of their articles in order to make the same claim.

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Stuart Wavell
Stuart Wavell is a retired Sunday Times journalist.

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