A few years ago I heard this description of a standard journalistic technique: ‘Simplify, then exaggerate’. That is largely what we do all the time. So, for example, you might come across a headline such as ‘Can farting cure cancer?’ in the health section of your average middle-market tabloid, something like the Good Health section of the Daily Mail. ‘My, my,’ you think, ‘now there’s good news. I do seem to fart quite a bit, and if I develop cancer – why, it might not be all that serious after all! Must read on.’ So you do read on and gather that the vast majority of those of had been cured of their cancers – an astonishing 100pc in fact – farted at least once a day. Significant or what!
So by a journalistic process tried and tested on innumerable suckers for a great many years – the creative use of statistics – a new truth is established: farting might well cure cancer! But note well the word ‘might’ – that is your get-out clause. When your conclusion is not only questioned by doctors and researchers – well, not questioned but described as 24-carat cack – you can airily point out that you were only suggesting that farting might help to cure cancer. You weren’t claiming it definitely could cure cancer, oh no, a great many other treatments are also involved, but as statistically an astonishing 100pc . . . you are already more than halfway out of the woods in as far as all sensible people have already completely lost interest in your argument and written you off as just another unscrupulous hack.
Before you run away with the idea that the technique of ‘simplify, then exaggerate’ is one only employed by the good folk who cobble together the health section of your average middle-market tabloid, something like the Good Health section of the Daily Mail, take a good look at the health sections of other newspapers; and then take a good look at all the other sections of you rag of choice. And don’t restrict yourselves to our printed media: radio and television do the same, both in Britain and the rest of the universe.
It’s known as ‘lazy journalism’ and it is very, very, very effective. Please don’t run away with the idea that it is only ‘middle-market’ papers who use the technique: here in Britain The Times uses it (though in my view The ‘Thunderer’ is more middle than up market despite its pretensions and the pretensions of its readers), as do the papers read by all saints, the Guardian and The Independent.
There is this touching idea here in the ‘developed’ world that the task of the journalist is to bring the truth to the people, to ensure our freedoms and, generally, to be a thorn in the side of the nasty folk in authority whose every waking moment is given over to coming up with new ways of restricting those freedoms. Wrong. The task of the journalist is to make the paper or programme he or she is working for as interesting as possible in order to attract as many readers, viewers or listeners as possible to allow his or her bosses to charge those taking out advertising space in the paper or in an ad slot top dollar. So running headlines such as ‘Can farting cure cancer’ is not quite as daft as it seems.
As for ‘lazy journalism’ – and the irony is, of course, that the phrase is usually used by politicians smarting from the fact that yet again they have been caught with their fingers in the till, so we are here dealing with a vary bad case of pots and kettles – dreaming up catchy phrases is another useful technique. So, for example, for many years a child born outside marriage (the quaint phrase was once ‘born out of wedlock’) was known as ‘a bastard’.
Then, about 30 years ago (it might well only have been 29 years ago, so don’t hold me to a figure) a sub-editor on The Sun came up with the phrase ‘love child’, which sounds a lot nicer than ‘bastard’. A ‘love child’ is, of course, no different to a ‘bastard’, but that isn’t the point: the point is that a ‘love child’ – the implication being that the child is the result of a true, romantic love worthy of Heloise and Abelard rather than just a drunken shag in the back seat in the pub car park – is far more acceptable. But what is notable is that today girls proudly refer to their ‘love child’, thereby implying that there is something far nobler about the little tyke than one born to a married couple, and the phrase has become part of our language, all thanks to a sub who was good at his job.
Another such phrase, one which was just as vacuous as ‘love child’ but which helped to shape how a nation thought, was invented after the death of Princess Diana. She, a perfectly pleasant though apparently rather dim young woman, became ‘the people’s princess’. The phrase was said to have been coined by one Alastair Campbell, an ex-tabloid hack and the then prime minister Tony Blair’s press secretary cum henchman. He knew what he was doing and as far as I know ‘the people’s princess’ is still in current use. What fascinates me is how two or three little words can seemingly alter the mindset of a whole generation. And here are two more little words which seem to have completely bamboozled us: Arab Spring.
Oh, the optimism, hope and promise conveyed by that phrase: after decades of tyranny (the fact that the tyrants in question were firm and extremely useful allies of us here in the West notwithstanding and it really is in very poor taste that you should now mention it), the peoples of various Middle Eastern countries were finally on the verge of breathing deeply the fresh air of freedom: ‘Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very Heaven!’ This was it: democracy, that panacea for all ills from cancer to farting, was about to be introduced in the Middle East. The people would now have their say! The people would now be allowed free and fair elections! Yes it was an Arab spring!
Well, I have no idea who came up with the phrase, but it is now obvious that it is in very poor taste indeed. To put it bluntly: Arab spring my arse! This is not to suggest that the countries involved would have been better off sticking to the bastards who ran them (sorry, ‘love children’ who ran them), but it is to point out how frighteningly effective a vacuous phrase like ‘Arab spring’ can be.
The reality is, if not worse, hardly any better. Libya might now have rid itself of Colonel Gaddafi, but law and order regularly breaks down in Tripoli and Benghazi where assorted and mutually antagonistic militias vie with ineffective government forces for control. Syria might well be seeing the last of the Assad family, but the horribly disparate bunch opposing him, lazily referred to as ‘the rebels’ as though they were a coherent opposition, are from what I hear equally as unedifying. Most recently Egypt, which saw a president elected in what was seen as a free and fair vote, is now once again under military rule after a coup, though a coup apparently welcomed and approved of by Egypt’s urban liberal elite, so we have now been introduced to a novel concept: the good military coup.
As I pointed out in my last entry, black can apparently be white. Well!
So much for the ‘Arab spring’. Yet, there are undoubtedly a great many in the West who are not too concerned with detail and are far more partial to a catchy phrase and who still think: Arab spring, eh, so it really is coming good at last. Dream on.
. . .
It, however, be unfair of me not to mention Tunisia. That country also had a revolution, followed by elections in which a mildly Islamic government was returned to power, and as far as I know things have so far worked out. Fingers crossed.