Columnists: Creators of imaginary worlds

It may be that writers in my position, exiles or emigrants or expatriates, are haunted by some sense of loss, some urge to reclaim, to look back, even at the risk of being mutated into pillars of salt. But if we do look back, we must also do so in the knowledge - which gives rise to profound incertainties - that our physical alienation from India almost inevitably means that we will not be capable of reclaiming precisely the thing that was lost; that we will, in short, create fictions, not actual cities or villages, but invisible ones, imaginary homelands, Indias of the mind.

Salmain Rushdie, Imaginary Homelands
Tabloid newspapers don't exist to report the news to an uninformed pulic. They exist to sell an audience to their advertisers, which they manage by packaging up a product to appeal to that target audience. This product might achieve the illusion of being news, in that it often concerns itself with current events, but it isn't really - at least not in the way that most of us think of the news. Most people think of 'reporting the news' as telling the public what is happening around them as accurately as possible. Sure, we might expect a bit of comment or a bit of spin on what gets reported, but that's not what we get from the tabloids.

Instead, what we get are the same stories repeated endlessly, regardless of what is actually happening. These are the stories that the tabloids have identified as being what their target audience want to hear; stories about how certain groups live up to stereotypes, stories about how people in authority are completely stupid and lack common sense, stories about how crime is inexorably rising, stories about how immigration is destroying the fabric of society (usually because of the earlier one about stereotypes) and so on. If anything happens that contradicts any of these points, like the publication of new figures showing a fall in crime or a report that highlights positive aspects of immigration, the tabloids will often ignore it or pretend it says the opposite. Even when people the tabloids are sympathetic to release information that support the tabloids' position, it gets exaggerated to work better. If anything the tabloids report actually happened in the way they've reported it, that's an optional bonus. They don't tell their readers what is happening in the world, they tell their readers what is happening in an imaginary Britain, one the readers already have in their mind.

Back in the 80s, papers created a view of some areas of London that relied on outrageous caricatures of the left wing politics of the Labour party at the time. Apparently, these didn't negatively affect the Labour vote in those particular areas - and that's because people in those areas knew they were still using black bin liners that hadn't been banned for being racist at all, or knew they could still order black coffee at the town hall if they wanted. The stories were used to help create an imaginary version of those areas for everyone else, and give them what they wanted to hear about how people in charge have no common sense and how left wing politics is just mad stuff that lacks any common sense.

Kelvin Mackenzie gave an idea of what he thought it was his readers wanted around the same time, while editing the Sun, when he was asked why his paper didn't report more serious news. He said:
You just don't understand the readers, do you, eh? He's the bloke you see in the pub, a right old fascist, wants to send the wogs back, buy his poxy council house, he's afraid of the unions, afraid of the Russians, hates the queers and the weirdos and drug dealers. He doesn't want to hear about that stuff.
It was while he was editing the paper with this attitude that he infamously published falsehoods about Liverpool fans robbing dead bodies at Hillsborough and ran the headline 'The Abos: Brutal and Treacherous'. The truth mattered less than pushing the tabloid story about stereotypes.

MacKenzie is now a tabloid columnist. Like the papers they write for, the role of the tabloid columnist is slightly differen to what we might expect. We might expect a columnist to put what's happening in the world into the conext of their opinions and wrap it up with a bit of personal observation and humour, but since the papers themselves repeat old narratives at the expense of accuracy, the columnists job has little to do with what is actually happening in the world too.

What the tabloid columnist usually does is act as Greek Chorus for the paper they appear in. The tabloids set the scene with their constantly repeated stories, with exagerrated figures, distorted coverage of reports that aim to invert their meaning and opinion dressed as fact - that happen to fit the targeted narratives they've created. But these will often be flawed by the balance that must be inserted (and mostly is) with a quote toward the end, or the inclusion of actual figures that readers might spot aren't quite as scary as the paper wants them to believe they are. So here the columnist pipes up and shows the reader what their ideal reaction should be.

Want to imply that most crime is carried out by foreigners, but are hampered by the fact that they're not? A columnist doesn't worry about facts, so with a throwaway line, Richard Littlejohn can help by saying, in a complete fabrication, "Most of the robberies in this country have been carried out by Eastern European gangs." Want to exaggerate how much immigrants get in benefits but find it difficult to get away with it in news stories because they don't get very much? Someone like Carol Malone can make the fatuous claim that they get free cars. Yes, free cars. Columnists take the false claims made in news stories that extra step to help create a version of Britain for their readers that rely even more on imagination.

Given the creation of an imaginary Britain columnists engage in, it's fitting that the highest paid star columnist in the country is probably an emigrant who lives thousands of miles away in the US. If he really does spend most of his year in Florida, this could be an integral part of what makes Littlejohn the perfect Daily Mail columnist with Paul Dacre describing the paper as his 'spiritual home'. Because like Rushdie, he is not capable of 'reclaiming the thing that was lost' when he left, and must himself create fictions, an imaginary Britain of the mind, from three things; his imperfect memory, his self-reinforcing postbag, and the depiction of Britain he sees in the paper he writes for and the rest of the right wing press. It's this that makes his column like pure, distilled essence of Daily Mail.

Well, it's either that or he's a big fat liar with the sort of cavalier attitude to actual facts that would make Richard Barnbrook blush (he reportedly told Brian Paddick that "I don't intend anybody to take anything I say seriously,"). Either way, he creates an imaginary Britain for his readers that reinforces their prejudices, while at the same time discouraging any kind of curiosity or self examination.

"I merely report the facts," he might say, "I only ever criticise people for what they DO, not what they are," like he did last week in a column in which he lies about how much crime Eastern Europeans commit, invents a term to describe prejudice against gypsies that actually incorporates the word 'gippo', and attacks the Transgender Police Association for existing (which means he's ignored the Christian Police Association, the Catholic Police Association, the Jewish Police Association and the Association of Women in British Policing while attacking those of other minority groups in the last few weeks). Both his assertions are laughably and demonstrably false - you don't even have to look beyond the column he wrote them in to see that - but they act like a hypnotic chant, "You're right, nasty things are happening and it's all lefties and foreigners' faults...you're not racist for thinking that way...you're not homophobic...you're just right, and everyone else is stupid. Don't bother to go away and check anything at all. People who disagree are all clueless weirdoes and Guardianistas who think too much."

That's why people who don't like the Daily Mail talk about how when they read it, the paper makes them depressed and paranoid. The Britain it depicts is not one we recognise - and that's because it's largely made up. The same is true of other tabloids - except the bit about being depressed and paranoid when we're talking about the Sun or the Star. The Sun is actually quite fun sometimes, and the Star exists mainly as a vehicle to sell pictures of tits to stupid people, but they all make stuff up, and they all use columnists to push their nonsense that little bit further to create an imaginary homeland in their readers' minds.


Barbara Suzuki said...

Well-written and so true. You highlight the cynicism and lack of accountability of the columnists very well.
Thanks -

douglas clark said...

Excellent post. Y'know when I misspell public I always make the schoolboy howler of leaving the 'l' out. I always suspected you were far cleverer than me.

Five Chinese Crackers said...

Cheers Douglas. But I'm not clever. I'm just big boned.

PJ said...

Great post

Mike Booth said...