Artillery Row

The decline of the quality press

Frequent hyperbole means the media would struggle to describe a genuine disaster

These are hard times when balance and good judgment are needed in assessing the free society’s true condition. But if the once “quality press” is our guide in Britain, it presents us with a daily diet of often banal opinion, disaster and trivia which is increasingly hard to digest.

“Cosmopolitanism is the way forward” preaches one commentator; “culture is essential if we are to make sense of trying times” a second informs us; “good government is at risk when ministers no longer feel bound by the rules” a third discovers; and “being a graduate is not a guarantee of happiness” a fourth tells us. But who thinks it is? And in case we did not know, “we are all prisoners of the times we live in” a fifth sage declares from his pulpit.

But scroll down an inch or two, or (more rarely) turn the page, and on the instant you pass into trivia’s domain. Here the Guardian will tell you “how to make Bernie Sanders’ inauguration mittens”, “how 2020 legitimized leggings” or “how to jazz up fish-finger sandwiches”. Likewise, the Sunday Times pronounces to the world that it is “high time for high heels to go”, while The Times warns its readers not to “sit on the grass without a picnic blanket”.

Across the Atlantic, the New York Times is at it too, fearing that “a socially distanced lifestyle might mean the end of the manicure” and the attentive reader can find out how a contributor “learned to like cardboard during the pandemic”. Similarly, childish puns now plague almost every “quality” newspaper. A Downing Street meeting on the Covid lockdown “ends in tiers”, Heathrow is “in terminal decline”, fishing was said to be the “big catch” in Brexit talks, and so on and so forth.

With the banality come under-informed certitudes about matters that require careful and calibrated judgment before pronouncing upon them. Instead,  Covid-19 is sweepingly asserted to be a “class issue” and Britain is told in the Guardian that it “must” – yes, “must”, a ubiquitous word – “end its infatuation with America”. But what “infatuation”?

Empty pronouncement is ubiquitous too. We can therefore be told in a Telegraph headline that “Labour will keep on losing if it does not find answers” – a striking discovery. “What on earth does sovereignty mean?’ asks a Sunday Times pundit as if it meant little or nothing. Equally idle, “being British” was said in the Observer to be “one thing, but what are we so proud of?”, while a Guardian editor could ask “Have Meghan and Harry moved the monarchy closer to its end?” and casually add ‘If only’.

There is a revealing egotism in such questions and assertions, an egotism that characterises much of the opinionation in today’s “serious” newspapers. It leads many self-referential columnists to invest not only their opinions but their personal tastes and even their private habits with significance.

But beyond the innocence of articles in The Times on, say, “the uplifting power of red lipstick” or on how to “tone your arms” are infantile vulgarities too. Today The Times can also tell you “how to get a peachy bottom” and the New York Times complain that because of the lack of public toilets “America is not made for people who pee”. Likewise, “arsehole” can now appear (in the Guardian) in an article-title, Radio 3 can be described (in the Telegraph) as “buttock-clenchingly obscure”, “Long Johns with a bum hatch” are celebrated (again in the Guardian), and “Go f..k yourself, the lot of you” was an article-title in the Telegraph in October 2020.

Moreover, in order to invest the trivial, the vulgar and the spurious with seeming authority, recourse is regularly had to the false claim that “everybody” likes or wants the same thing, or is in the same boat. Thus, from “mushrooms are the new houseplants everybody’s growing” to “we all want a smile like Kate and Meghan”, and from “a culture of fear is undermining leadership at every level of society” according to a columnist in the Telegraph, to “everyone wants a new set of breasts with enhanced nipples” — everyone? — also according to the Telegraph, the same device is being used.

What vocabulary could you now use in the event that there was a real “war on democracy” in the US?

Trivial as such things could be said to be, taken individually, it is the combination of banality, uninformed assertion, vulgarity, obsession (as with food), and exaggeration that should give pause for thought. Worse, scroll back from the trivia — from “What I did when the dog sat on my husband’s pillow” in The Times, or “How to keep your desk organized” in the New York Times — to the “serious” content and one finds, amid the intermittently balanced judgments about what is afoot in the world, a now ascending scale of alarmism and excess. One indication of it is the repeated use, by media and politicians alike, of the adjective “huge” in relation to matters that are often of modest proportion. Likewise, everyday events can be idly regarded as of almost cosmic significance until overtaken by something else and forgotten.

Much of this apocalyptic excess is absurd. But when the spirit of it is at work in judgments about the political scene, as in some of the above, a profound disservice is done to the truth. “Politicians”, thus asserts another Guardian scribe, “were once held to account. Now nothing stands in their way”. Nothing? Is that really so? Or take Trump’s presidency. It was egregious, and rode roughshod over many — or better to say “some” — conventions of American government. But for the apocalyptic it represented a “war on democracy” according to the Guardian, and to another sage in the New York Times “democracy’s near-death experience”. What then of a real “war” or a real “death experience”?.

Similarly, to a commentator in the Telegraph, Trump’s tweets had “torn up centuries of polite diplomacy” while the New York Times told its readers that he had brought a “reign of terror”. Terror? Or, again in the Telegraph, he had “left his country in the worst crisis since the Civil War”, while according to a Guardian pundit the 2020 presidential election was “not about the next four years. It’s about the next four millennia”. Yes, millennia. But what vocabulary could you now use in the event that there was a real “war on democracy” in the United States or if America’s “survival” was actually “in danger”.

It is as if judgment itself, and the language in which judgment is expressed had been infected with a virus

The grave coronavirus epidemic has also given licence to idle excess. The lockdown was thus described in the “quality press” as “totalitarian”, “vicious”, “inhuman” and “insane”, with the “underpinnings of democracy” being “torn apart” according to a Telegraph sage, or in The Times with “faith in Western democracy” being “killed”, and the question raised — again in the Telegraph — whether Britain was being “driven to the brink of a Covid civil war”. Likewise, and once more in the Telegraph, Downing Street was said to have an “extreme terror” of virus mutants, and the United States to be facing “impending doom” from a new coronavirus wave.

It is as if judgment itself, and the language in which judgment is expressed whether upon Covid or other matters, had themselves been infected with a virus. Thus a press prophet could tell us that the North of England would be “shattered” by the disease, Wales under lockdown was described as “a pyre on which the futures of her people will be incinerated”, “civil war doesn’t do justice to the bloodletting in the SNP”, Cambridge University was being “turned into Xi’s China” by political correctness, capitalism was said in the Telegraph in May 2021 to be “broken”, and London was in a “doom-spiral of permanent decline”.

Indeed, if today’s “quality press” is to be believed, caterpillars and Covid now pose similar threats to our existence. For the apocalyptic disorder, like the coronavirus, is a highly infectious one — I have had the symptoms myself — and a vaccine against it is urgently needed, the vaccine of truth.

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