Gone Fishing

I’m off to see old friends and meet new trout around the West Country for the next few days. I thought I’d leave you (below the fold) with a piece about news and fiction, lifted from a _Church Times_ column.

The front page of the Tuesday’s _Daily Mail_ carries one of the most informative and illuminating splash headlines I have ever seen. “How your daily vitamin pills could kill you” in a box above “Ten brilliant pages of Good health”. The reason this story is there is because it will sell papers. It has been placed in the slot, just under the masthead, reserved for the story that is meant to drag the paper off the news stands, and right next to the picture of Jamie Oliver holding a baby.

Obviously it’s not news that daily vitamin pills might kill you. You might spill some of the little round ones on the floor, skid on them, break a hip, and lie there till you died; or you might manage to call an ambulance, and be taken to hospital where an asylum-seeking cleaner would infect you with MRSA and you would die. Or if that didn’t happen you might just choke on the bottle cap and then you’d die.

If you survived the daily vitamin pills, you might get to watch your grandchildren die, because, as only story on the front page that’s more than a headline informs us that “The number of young children with mobile phones has doubled in the last two years as parents ignore health warnings.”

You might think there stories are part of a conspiracy to frighten or manipulate the public but you’d be wrong. These conspiracies do have their place in the papers, but a health story in the middle of an election campaign is evidence that they are in abeyance; the political coverage has been pushed away into the middle of the paper because it looks as if the Conservatives are going to lose. Thrilling stories about the death that lurks in your daily vitamin pills are there because they are what the impulse-buying newspaper reading public wants. Newspapers can monitor exactly which stories in that spot will sell most papers. Killer vitamins sell more than human killers.

When you start off as a journalist, you think that readers want the truth. This faith does not long survive. People want to be lied to, one thinks, after a few years in this business; and after a while corrupt journalists come to believe that readers don’t just want but deserve deception. But this, too, is wrong. What makes these stories exciting and pleasurable is that they are in the deepest sense fictional. Truth and untruth are irrelevant. They are an invitation to suspend disbelief, and be deliciously thrilled.

Never mind that next week an entirely contradictory story will be told. That would be like worrying that last week the heroine was tempted by a shark-like lawyer, but married the decent doctor instead, whereas this week she ran away from an arranged marriage to a horrible sheikh and hid in a strange hotel where she met a mysterious stranger who wooed her so tenderly that she yielded herself completely – then she discovered that he was the same sheikh all along, who had been so smitten with her that he had followed her to the hotel to win her heart. No one asks “What happened to the doctor and the wicked lawyer?” then.

You find a similar attitude among some pious old-fashioned Catholics,who delight in the tales of the saints and it underlies a lot more of the evangelical excitement about the Rapture than we tend to admit. In fact it’s almost a definition of charismatic religion that it has place for fictional thinking.

What makes all this problematical is the confusion of fiction with news. It has emerged from the polls in this election campaign that there is a great divide between the way that regular daily newspaper readers see the world and the way that the rest of the country does. According to Martin Kettle in the Guardian

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