The Triumph and Perils of ‘Circus Noir’ Journalism

A few weeks after I joined the Sunday Times in 1969 as a young graduate, the incomparable Nicholas Tomalin wrote his famous essay for the paper’s magazine about the trade of journalism. It is best remembered for its opening line: ‘The only qualities essential for real success in journalism are rat-like cunning, a plausible manner, and a little literary ability.’ However, to my mind, its most important passage comes later in his essay:

A journalist’s real function, at any rate his required talent, is the creation of interest. A good journalist takes a dull, or specialist, or esoteric situation, and makes newspaper readers want to know about it. By doing so he both sells newspapers and educates people. It is a noble, dignified and useful calling.

Those were the days: Insight’s memorable and important investigations for the Sunday Times; inquiring factual programmes in prime time on ITV, well-informed news features on serious subjects in the ‘Mirrorscope’ pages of the Daily Mirror.

Today a different impulse seems to dominate the media: give readers and viewers what they want. Many people deplore the showbiz obsessions of the Sun, and the populist agenda of the Daily Mail; but they sell far more copies than any other papers. They are clearly getting something right.

YouGov’s research for the Reuters Institute helps to explain what that something is, and how specifically British that something is. We offered people a list of different types of news story and asked them to identify which were most important to them. These are the proportions in five different countries saying ‘domestic political news’ and ‘entertainment and celebrity news’:

News interest across countries: Politics vs Celebrity

UK USA Germany France Denmark
Politics 37% 63% 55% 57% 56%
Celebrity & Ents 21% 16% 14% 14% 9%
Q2 Which of the following types of news is most important to you?

Base UK (n=2173) Denmark (n=1002) France (n=1011) Germany (n=970) USA (n=814)

As those figures show, Britain is out of line with the other four countries. We are less interested in politics than they are, and more interested in celebrity news.  If anything, those figures understate the propensity of the British to lap up celebrity stories: people tend to overstate their appetite for serious news, just as they often tell pollsters that their favourite TV programmes are nature documentaries, but the biggest audiences are for soaps, talent contests, and reality shows.

There are two ways to view these findings. They tend to be advanced by opposing camps, but they are not strictly incompatible. Both may be valid. The first is that, in competing for readers and viewers, tabloid editors and TV executives are responding to public demand. The second is that, by packaging their papers and programmes in such a compelling way, these editors and executives are shaping that demand.

I believe both things are true. Readers and viewers who are passionate about politics and current affairs have plenty of choice – for example, in the pages of the Financial Times, Guardian, and The Economist, and by viewing BBC2, Channel 4, and the BBC’s Parliament channel. Add in what’s available on the internet, and the public has vastly greater access to serious analysis and intense debate than ever before. So when most people prefer tabloid papers, soaps, and reality shows, it is not because they are starved of alternatives. It is because that is what they prefer.

On the other hand, supply does shape demand to some degree. Big Brother, Britain’s Got Talent, and I’m a Celebrity, Get me out of Here, did not erupt because market research showed a massive, unmet demand for these particular formats, but because programme- makers and TV executives judged that, with the right people, package, and promotion, they could attract large audiences. To some degree, they generated the thirst they went on to slake. When Ant and Dec lured list celebrities into the wilder parts of Australia, it was because ITV responded to angry viewers demanding that fading soap stars clamber through insect-infested plastic tubes.

My point is that far fewer resources are now devoted to any similar appetite-generation for serious journalism, on ITV or in mass-market newspapers. They have largely given up on Tomalin’s quest for compelling coverage of ‘a dull, or specialist, or esoteric situation’. Such investigations that are commissioned tend to have a simple and dramatic central message – for example, that particular MPs and peers fiddle their expenses, or that certain sports stars are corrupt, or that a university took money from a foreign dictator.

These are strong and important stories; but there are even more important issues that do not receive the treatment they deserve, or at least not until they become crises – and then they tend to be covered stridently and superficially. Britain’s and Europe’s current financial problems are a case in point. Where is the hour- long, prime-time ITV special with the same resources and production values as The X Factor? Or the six pages in the Sun, deploying the same flair that the paper devoted to serialising the biography of Simon Cowell?

To deplore this is not to appeal for an alternative diet of ‘good news’ stories that cheer us up. Journalists should report events and analyse issues on their merits. However, that is precisely what too many of them are NOT doing. Instead, much of their news agenda is driven, consciously or unconsciously, by a particular narrative. In the case of politicians, the prevailing narrative is that they are corrupt, remote, dishonest, and malicious ego-maniacs who evade straight questions and would sell their granny if this would advance their own careers.

The Roman satiric poet Juvenal would have understood the forces at work. He described the concerns of citizens as ‘bread and circuses’. Alongside often simplistic ‘bread’ stories (for example, about house prices), today’s mass media pay inordinate attention to the ‘circuses’, alternating between relentless stories of real or imagined sleaze and the confected world of talent contests and reality shows. Without anyone asking for it, but with plenty of readers now paying for it, too many journalists now paint a bleak picture of Britain as a bizarre dystopia: not just a circus, but a circus noir.

Now, there is plenty of malice, evasion, and careerism; and the details of some MPs’ expenses claims were truly shocking. These things deserved to be probed and reported. But anyone with an open mind who comes into frequent contact with politicians also finds that most of them spend much of their time as diligent, hard-working people who tend to their constituents’ problems and who care about Britain’s future. When party leaders adopt policy compromises it is usually not out of intellectual flabbiness or political cowardice but because they have concluded that there are no simple and easy ways forward – however much tabloid editorials like to pretend that there are.

In short, the typical MP is part-saint and part-sinner. But if journalists are exclusively interested in their sins, then we should not be surprised if the public concludes that they are mostly up to no good. And that is precisely what has happened. Earlier this year, in a survey for the David Butler lecture organised by the Reuters Institute1 and the BBC,2 YouGov found that:

  • 62% think ‘politicians tell lies all the time – you can’t believe a word they say’.
  • Just 15% think their own local MP is doing a good job.
  • 66% think that ‘however they start out, most MPs end up becoming remote from the everyday lives and concerns of the people they represent’.

Other surveys have found that trust in politicians has declined markedly over the past decade. This is not just a response to the MPs’ expenses scandal. The process began years ago, and it applies also to other groups of people in positions of authority, such as business executives, the police, and civil servants. And journalists, too: by providing such a persistently alarming account of modern public life in Britain, they have encouraged their readers to distrust elites of every stripe, including themselves.

I realise, of course, that my hypothesis – that our contemporary journalistic culture bears some of the blame for an excessively negative public view of those in authority – is impossible either to prove or disprove. Social science cannot conduct pure, controlled laboratory tests of rival theories in the way that physical sciences can. Yet I find it hard to suppose that the mass media have played no part in creating a society in which the average Briton is less interested in politics and more interested in celebrities than people in the rest of Europe. Indeed, the squalid phone-hacking saga reflects the most extreme form of the media’s pursuit of this agenda.

So what should our media do? To avoid being misrepresented, let me stress again that I am NOT arguing for any curbs on exposes of bad behaviour. I AM arguing for a more complete account of what politicians and others in authority actually do.

Take those terrible stories about MPs and their duck houses, moats, and second-home-flipping. What did the total amount of venality add up to – that is, in terms of clear and cynical dishonesty, not the grey area of dubious ‘expenses’ that the Commons officials considered at the time to be legitimate? I reckon that they amounted to well under a million pounds a year. Had other countries’ legislators been probed in the same detail, I’d wager that few would have experienced less corruption than ours. Our MPs were depicted as world-champion crooks, whereas a proper global league table of venality would consign them to the relegation zone. A newspaper investigation that reached that conclusion would have been important, and actually rather interesting. But it would have contradicted the prevailing narrative, so wasn’t attempted (not even by more serious papers and programmes: they, too, have been influenced by the ‘circus noir’ agenda of the tabloid media more than they might care to admit).

My plea, then, is for the media, and in particular their most popular forms, not to hold back on exposing villainy but to investigate and report MORE of what people in authority do: their serious attempts to tackle difficult problems and solve awkward dilemmas, not just their attempts to line their pockets and do down their colleagues. The media should abide by the same rule that applies to witnesses in court: ‘to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth’.

A true democracy is a well-informed democracy. The paradox of Britain today is that we know more about our MPs, in particular, than ever before; but, to adapt what John Birt and Peter Jay argued a generation ago, this increase in knowledge has been accompanied by a decline in understanding. This is part of the price we pay for the victory of ‘circus noir’ journalism.