Posted by Dr. Andrew Calcutt

Categories: Guest Writers / History of PR / Media issues / Richard D North

17 June 2011


A reply to Dr Calcutt’s tract

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.

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3 responses to “A reply to Dr Calcutt’s tract”

  1. Richard

    Re your references to J Addison. I doubt that Addison saw very much difference between morals and virtue: and he thought the Royal Exchange was a place of virtue. He also wrote an essay on the life of the sixpence: it was most happy when travelling around and not in the chest of a banker. That means, it was most happy when in circulation and needed to circulate to accumulate. Addison and Steele also call for readers to submit pieces: and the first subject they suggest was nothing other than “Money”. It is not immoral to talk about money, sixpences and trade, they are saying. They are trying to replace the position of the landed gentleman in his rural setting with the merchant in his urban setting. See also Addison’s stinging remarks about the boredom and intrusion of rural life. He felt he could be private in London but was forced to be public in the countryside.

    Addison started issue 1 of The Spectator with a description of “himself” as the son of a long line of landowners who had held onto their land. But it was pure fantasy, not his life at all. He was creating creditentials for himself as a spectator — and the best credentials then were to hold land and be a gentleman. Addison was the latter but not the former. Later, in his pieces on the sixpence and on the Royal Exchange, he places the merchant in the same position as the landed gentleman: as the most important person, the man of virtue. That was, I am arguing here, as much a moral position as it was an economic one. I don’t think he split the two; the split came later. That which works economically is also moral, seems to have been his thinking.

  2. What with the price of white fish, I’ll take ‘cod Marxism’ as high praise. And ‘tract’, too, taking it to mean: the short form of that which is to be drawn out. But what I mainly draw from Mr North’s response, is that he has proved my point, albeit unwittingly.

    His end-point is that of the plain man: preying on someone else’s privacy is just part of being human. Exactly: it is a part, not the whole. Standing apart from others and looking in upon them, is part of what we do; but even when we do this, we have this (and not only this) in common. Unfortunately for Mr North, in his haste to stand apart from the societal side of being human (social being, perhaps), he cannot but lose track of that which is socially determined. Thus the plain man’s explanation of Man’s (changing) appetite for news (of various kinds), is no such thing: he cannot account for it; but can only say that there is such an appetite, and it fuels and consumes itself.

    We’ve already had that from Alastair Campbell. For a more sufficient explanation, you’ll have to eat my cod, Mr North.

  3. Re Mr Sharpe: Thanks for those corrective remarks about Addison. I’m sure you’re right that he thought the market was useful – all right, virtuous – in all sorts of ways. It’s just that having read the “Royal Exchange” essay a couple of times, I don’t get the extra layers of meaning which I think Dr Calcutt put on it. I may be missing something and I’ll keep looking.

    Re Dr Calcutt: I stick by my guns. I am sorry, but I don’t get the intellectual engine which is collectivity etc. But I do admit that I have failed to explain why sellers and buyers of news have switched from murder to sex scandal. Some reflections: (1) in our disinhibited age, we are freer to explore sexual detail in satisfactory detail; (2) in our less deferential age we are freer to “diss” celebrities (who were once safer on their pedestals); (3) as Orwell observed, the English Murder (best seen in the Famous Trials series of the 1930s and 1940s, or Rattigan) has changed and so has the sort of prurience we now allow ourselves.

    More generally: I think I can at least sketch the differences in sensibility that lie between (1) “Famous Trials” of the 1930s and (2) the pinup magazine “Spick and Span”, or the movie “Peeping Tom”, or the “News of the World” of the 1960s and (3) Big Brother or the Daily Mail now. And I hope my groping towards a way of thinking about all this is thoroughly social (Lord help me, even sociological). I am hoping the more times I re-read Dr Calcutt, the more I will see he’s right. It isn’t happening yet.