Of all the animals of prey, man is the only sociable one.
Every one of us preys upon his neighbour, and yet we herd together.
The Beggar's Opera: John Gay

Monday, 12 July 2010

'Feeding the public interest monster'

Did we really ask for it? Was the media extravaganza of last week's Moat-a-thon purely a response to public demand?

While the red-tops revel in the 'human interest' aspects of the story, the more restrained papers have been questioning the motives behind the media free-for-all, and it's not a pretty sight. I'd like to believe that Barbara Ellen is wrong when she says the news media are 'merely feeding the "public interest" monster' (H/T JuliaM) but I'm not sure I can.

Some years ago I walked into a newsagent's in a nearby town and found a small crowd, most of whom were sporting mullets and bulging tattoos, milling about in aimless bovine expectation. Suddenly, with cries of "It's here!", they all converged excitedly on a newly-opened bundle of magazines.

Curious to find out the source of the feeding-frenzy, I risked a glance over the heavily-tattooed shoulder of one of the women; she was avidly leafing through one of those build-it-up-weekly magazines with a title something like 'World's Most Evil Serial Killers - part 1 of 50', complete with detailed maps, photographs and crime scene dossiers.

Doubtless she and her fellow shoppers watched last week's constant news coverage with keen interest, perhaps fortified by the occasional beer to enhance their enjoyment. In the lexicon of her mind, Rothbury is now synonymous with the last hours of Raoul Moat, played out for her entertainment on her television screen.

The 'public interest monster' is an unhealthy beast, addicted to titillation and vicarious violence - give it a fix and it will beg for more. Today's Sun leads with the story that Moat's 3-year-old daughter doesn't know he's dead - effortlessly combining sensationalism with mawkish sentimentality in a completely unjustifiable disclosure.

It's the downside of the free press - a willingness to take things so far beyond the boundaries of taste and journalistic integrity that you feel some of the worst offending papers should feature a notice at the end saying 'Now wash your hands'.

I'm not suggesting that regulation is the answer, but I should very much like to see tabloid editors exercising more restraint and making room for a world where Hungerford is principally known as a pleasant market town in Berkshire, Dunblane is famous as the former home of Andy Murray and Rothbury is celebrated for its excellent bakery.

Update: Anna Raccoon has tackled a similar topic with her customary brilliance.

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