NEWS AS ENTERTAINMENT
November 10, 2009 1 Comment
Imagine, for an instant, this tender moment. A middle-aged man sits at an antique desk, his melancholy countenance replacing his usual stern look. On the desk, there is a stack of stationery, two felt-tipped pens, and a pile of envelopes. Perhaps too, there is an assistant ready to read off a list of names. Or maybe, the man is alone at his desk when he begins to write the letters to the families of British soldiers, who have given their lives for Queen and Country. After an hour, due to an old injury causing partial blindness, the man’s left eye begins to tear from the strain.
This might be a romanticized version of the event, but no one can deny that UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown took the time to hand write letters to families he had never met; a small, but touching gesture from the busiest man in London. Yet, it has not saved him from coming under intense scrutiny by Jacqui Janes, the mother of a soldier, who was killed in Iraq. In her condolence letter from Brown, the name ‘Janes’ seemed to be written as ‘James’. Jacqui Janes found the misspelling of her son’s name, as well as the sloppy writing, ‘disrespectful’.
Last night, the Evening Standard seemed to commiserate with the grieving mother, as they published an article on the front page with the headline, Brown: Sorry If You Can’t Read My Writing. They continued the article on pages four and five, including a photograph of Jacqui Janes holding up a copy of the letter and another photograph of Janes and her son in full uniform.
On BBC Radio 94.9, the issue was discussed on The Breakfast Show yesterday with Joanne Good and Paul Ross. Joanne (or Jo as she is commonly known), who is notorious for her harsh judgment revealed that she was more surprised to find out that the PM would actually hand write letters. The fact that he made mistakes on the letter was not an issue for the well known radio personality. This morning, The Times, made a touching comment about the sentiment of hand written letters, calling the PM’s mistake ‘careless’, but ‘not callous’.
If all of this seems a tremendous amount of hoopla for such an inconsequential issue, one could argue that an inability of a Prime Minister to spell or write well is of public interest. After all, every oratory mistake former President George W. Bush uttered – and there were plenty – made him a constant source of ridicule in the press. Still, perhaps it can also be argued that these types of news stories, which seem to occupy large spaces in the news are tabloid stories at best.
It may be fitting that the PM’s handwriting skills have been called into question on the very day that Professor Daya Kishan Thussu gave a lecture at the University of Westminster on ‘Infotainment’. Thussu maintains that the news media is consistently influenced to report soft news (celebrity, pop culture) rather than serious and topical information that is in the public’s best interest. And perhaps, hard core journalists may – if doing any soul searching or internal juggling – find themselves duplicating Thussu’s sentiment after reading articles about Gordon Brown. The indictment against him seems severe indeed, when one considers what he meant to do by writing condolence letters by hand despite his disability.
What is arguably most disturbing about this incident is that it promotes the idea that certain people in particular positions are not allowed to make mistakes. Scarily, this is not a new idea. In corporate offices everywhere, a project called Six Sigma is being implemented and taught to employees with the goal of teaching them how to eliminate making mistakes. Ideally, it seems a reasonable objective for any business, indeed a way to improve accuracy and increase production. Yet, a closer inspection of the business strategy reveals it as a psychological trick that perhaps usually results in making older, less mentally nimble employees feel insignificant. It also gives corporations the opportunity to get rid of high paid mature workers and justify replacing them with younger, more agile employees that are willing to work for less money due to lack of experience.
It is ultimately important to meditate on what can be taken from news stories that seem over-inflated and trivial. It shows a stronger movement toward news as entertainment. And while these stories may interest the public, they are conceivably bad for the public as they seek to replace news intended to inform people and inspire them into social action against injustice and destructive forces.