AUGUST, and a preternatural calm has descended on news desks after a frenetic few months. After the excitements of the Brexit referendum, and the subsequent changes in the Government, what used to be called the “silly season has arrived. “Silly” was often a misnomer — the First World War started in August, the Second nearly so, as have innumerable other events — but this time of year used to be when hapless reporters were sent out to see if they could fry eggs on baking hot pavements, and Lobby Ludd prowled seaside resorts giving away fivers to any reader who could spot him on the prom.
No such luck this year: with Aleppo being pounded to dust, the Olympics in full swing, and the Labour Party providing quite enough silliness all on its own, religious news stories have been squeezed. Of these, perhaps the most significant was Pope Francis’s decision to set up a commission to study whether women could be made deacons in the Roman Catholic Church.
He originally announced the move to journalists on the plane coming back from a visit to Armenia, in June. The man is quite a politician, casually dropping what we hacks like to call “Sunday for Mondays”: speculative stories released on Sundays to get more space in quiet Monday-morning papers. But the plan is now apparently coming to pass, a press release issued from the Vatican a mere six weeks later suggests. How fortunate, then, that Christopher Howse, seemingly The Daily Telegraph’s sole remaining Roman Catholic, was on hand to reassure consternated readers that it did not mean women priests any time soon.
Cruelly pointing out that it took the Church of England 152 years to move from the first female deacon to the first female bishop, Howse observed reassuringly that there were, indeed, limits to papal infallibility, and Pope Francis was not challenging them. Pope John Paul II (who clearly was infallible) laid down that the Church had no authority whatsoever to ordain women, and that was that. Why, then, did they need a commission? “It’s as clear as fire from heaven that confusion, both innocent and deliberate, will follow [the] initiative,” Howse warned. Obviously, what is really needed is a divine revelation, possibly following the desperate decline in male ordinations in the Western Church. That would do the trick.
Of more immediate relevance to the media — and wider society — was an article in Monday’s trade paper, the UK Press Gazette, by Lee Marlow, a columnist on the Leicester Mercury who has just been made redundant, a month after being named Regional Feature Writer of the Year for the third year running in the Society of Editors’ press awards.
The Mercury’s features department, which formerly comprised three full-timers and two part-timers, has now been eviscerated to one of each by the paper’s new owners, the large regional group Trinity Mirror, which has also shed the entire photographic staff.
In a cri de coeur, which the Mercury did not publish, Marlow bemoaned the loss of local reporting and its effects on the communities it serves. Courts are not covered, council meetings go unheard. Everything is reduced to clickbait: stories online that readers pause to look at, clicked up on screen — the greater the number of clicks, the greater the advertising interest.
Marlow had a ripe example: a regional paper that carried a story of a man dropping
a bag of fast food in the street under the
headline: “What has happened here? Is this your dinner? Can you help solve this mystery?” The story was updated later to publicise the reaction it had received on social media: 8000 shares on Facebook and Twitter. The fact that the responses had been largely mocking was irrelevant.
”In this brave new world of digital journalism, this is what counts. The click is always king. It doesn’t matter that your readers are laughing at you . . . it just matters that they click . . . it’s not about the quality. It is the quantity. Feel the numbers.”
Many newspapers are suffering this, national as well as local. My old newspaper, The Guardian, posted annual losses of £69 million last week; advertising is down 15 per cent, lost to the likes of Facebook and Google; and it is shedding experienced journalists. It is professionally disheartening. I admit a personal element as well: my son recently gave up his job on a local paper because clickbait had replaced reporting; and he worked in Canterbury, where you might think there would be other stories.
It is also damaging to local democracy. Without proper scrutiny, demagogues and charlatans prosper: vide Donald Trump, who this week took a 287-word digression to explain how disadvantaged he was — even the Gettysburg Address ran only to 272.