I loved Dr Calcutt’s piece. It was fluent and persuasive. But I want to contradict every bit of Dr Calcutt’s analysis.
Trivially, it’s worth mentioning that the ex cathedra utterances of Charles Wheeler were in their way as crushingly orthodox as those of James Cameron, that even more famous and worshipped lefty. Too many of us were steamrollered by their brand of liberalism. Let’s have no golden-ageism here please.
I am not inclined to take lessons on media seriousness from Alastair Campbell, whose own persona I do hugely enjoy, in a sleb way. He was part of the process of reducing politics to gossip. And anyway, I think we have a more serious, more substantial, more substantiated, media now than ever we did. To take one example, The Times has more slebbiness than it used, but no more than is necessary to draw in a female audience to its rather serious material.
I imagine The Times’s quotient of gossip is no worse or larger than in any organ of 18th Century journalism.
More importantly, I am a too-lately admirer of Joseph Addison. I have my late father’s battered copy of the essays by my bedside now. I can say that Addison’s, “The Royal Exchange” (if that is the source of Dr Calcutt’s Addisonian adumbrations) does not really say or imply that trade improves morals, though any self-respecting supporter of capitalism believes it does. Rather, it seems more in the manner of the economist (as opposed to the moralist) Adam Smith in saying that trade produces a miracle of specialist co-operation across trades, climates and nations. Yes, Addison does say that this is a peaceable and amiable process, and yes, he has the idea of a “citizen of the world”, but the improvement he sees in all this is material more than moral. I may be wrong, but I think you need to get to later thinking (Hayek, David Landes, and now Matt Ridley) to get the full-on idea that trade generates the class of co-operation which is the conduit of intellectual and moral exchange.
I dimly recall being taught that “commonality” is a Marxist idea, along with its better-known stablemate, alienation. Anyway and whatever, I don’t buy this bit of Dr Calcutt’s case either.
Indeed, we do need an explanation of why the media is more excited by ordinary (and only notionally “illicit”) sex than by murder these days. I don’t think we’ll find it in Marxist theory. See below for a stab at an explanation.
On the appetite for news in general, I’d recommend going back to Addison. His “The Newspaper” is a brilliant account of the way the medium is the message: create the means of disseminating new gossip, and people will become addicted to it. But even hard, serious news has always been information which someone is prepared to pay for. And nowadays, frankly, the supply has outrun the demand. Or, more precisely, the organs of dissemination are multiplying like crazy, and they all have the same sources. What’s worse, almost all news-makers can publish their own information: the organs of the media are becoming more and more obviously derivative. No wonder the media complains the business model for serious journalism is broken. No wonder they seek to stay afloat by being better at showbusiness than their many rivals.
And here I think Dr Calcutt is on the right track (Marxist or not). I think we like celebrity stuff because we want to prey on the privacy of famous people. I mean that just as we once liked to fantasise that we were hacking at the bodies of the Ripper’s victims, we now want to hack at the souls of poor Brittney or Giggs. I like this sort of account because it is, I think, more spiritual and sound than any cod-Marxist account is likely to be. We think celebrities have made a Faustian pact with us, and when they falter in any way, we want to inflict pain on them as best we can. It isn’t pretty, but it’s human alright. It’s a bloodsport for readers.