12 August 2016

Is summer news actually real news?


If you’re anything like me, you’re probably a bit worried by a sinkhole appearing under your house or, perhaps, a mobile phone exploding and removing a vital buttock. That, of course, assumes that you’re not instead obsessing over venom spitting ear-nesting spiders leaping from your salad bag, the credit card scammers using drones to read your pin number, or the deep vein thrombosis you’ll get if you don’t wiggle your toes in the next three… two… one seconds… Too late!

Rest assured: it’s normal to be this paranoid at the end of July and into the first weeks of August. Nothing defines the season quite like the slow news of summer; a time when newspaper interns across the nation sit gazing at their selfies and wondering how they’ll fill all those column inches when key staff are nose deep in a five star sangria and sauna binge down in the slave state of Dubai.

The answers usually involve health warnings (beware marzipan!) or something new that scientists have said. Scientists can always be relied upon to have been thinking about something whilst the media have been away obsessing over celebrities. On Monday, The Independent pushed a story up to the top of its website with the title ‘Scientists have discovered why snakes are so long‘, which must rank alongside the question ‘Why are earwigs so short?’ as something I’d never have thought to ask. Elsewhere, the Indie has ‘Woman gives birth in less than 60 seconds‘, which really sets a challenge for mothers everywhere, as well as competitive dads who already own a stopwatch. The Times, meanwhile, offers the headline ‘Patients left with ruined teeth as cosmetic dentists get rich quick‘ which has a degree in the obvious only matched by ‘Snow’s cold: scientists suspect frozen water’. Nothing says ‘summer’ quite like the obligatory ‘Dentists are swine and out to steal all your money’ article. They’re as ubiquitous as articles headed ‘warning signs to look out for under your armpits’ and TV news reports obviously filmed in the depths of winter but saved to cover the two weeks when Laura Kuenssberg floats on an Eric-Pickles-shaped lilo in the heat of Bali.

The Daily Mail‘s headline, meanwhile, currently bemoans ‘The Tragic Kingdom’ where ‘Police are called to £14-a-ticket children’s fun day “disgrace” as furious parents rage over its pathetic attractions – including a “castle” made of old crisp boxes‘. That old-crisp-box castle would have been the highlight of my summer if it weren’t already for the article written in The Daily Star titled ‘We just blew £183m on a five inch gun, but it’s “good value for taxpayers”‘. The journalist thought that the gun was five inches long or, as they described it, ‘the length of a toothbrush’. Confusing the barrel width with the barrel length was an easy mistake to make. I sometimes type ‘journalist’ when I meant ‘dunderhead’.

Not all summer news reaches this level of the sublime. Most stories are about tattoo-necked joyriders winning two billion on the Eurotrillions. Then there’s some story of a school party spending their entire six week holiday stuck in a Dover tailback and people finding novel things to do with Alan Titchmarsh, a garden rake and a tub of butter. As the world’s editors, sub editors, and senior journalists sun themselves, ski down slopes, lug backpacks up mountains, or poke the spines on exotic fish as they snorkel off Australia, the few left in Blighty are really struggling to find anything worth reporting. Some are even pushed to write articles titled ‘Is summer news actually real news?’ It’s desperate, I tell you!

Yet there is a serious point to all of this and that’s to wonder if this is really closer to reality. Is this how we’re meant to feel about the world when we’re not made hyper aware of every sad turn of events? Is this how life felt in the 1950s when news was taken with breakfast or the evening meal and life continued in between without knowing that some third-rate actor had been seen paddle boarding naked, thereby sadly revealing to the world that he was born with heavily pixellated genitals? Because, surely, all this news must affect us. We live with threats and tragedy 24 hours a day and it leaves us in a state of heightened panic. I sometimes can’t wake up in the middle of the night without checking the headlines in case there’s been a mudslide somewhere or scientists have invented a new type of glue.

I know, of course, that summer news involves an accidental form of ignorance. World events aren’t any slower but the reporting is. World hotspots are still as hot as they were, if not hotter. But summer might just prove that the problem is the hype and sensationalism of some journalism. In America, Donald Trump tells the voters to fear everything, despite statistics suggesting that there’s fewer reasons to fear than ever before in American history. The same is true across Europe and here in the UK, when crimes have generally been declining, year on year, since their peak in 1995. On Sky News a couple of weeks ago, Martin Brunt had what Twitter quickly dubbed his ‘Alan Partridge moment’. In the wake of the murder of a French priest in Normandy, Brunt visited a quiet English church to make rather unhelpful point that they don’t have any security. ‘There are about a dozen worshippers in there and one priest. If I was a terrorist, I could’ve killed them all,’ he said with a seriousness that only highlighted the utter absurdity of this kind of reporting. If terrorists need advanced recon doing, then Brunt might well be their man…

Which is why, perhaps, we should all be grateful for the summer. It gives us time to pause and realise how little we should fear Somali Pirates taking over our favourite bus route in Subury or even super-volcanos going off beneath Kettering. It’s unlikely too that Worksop will disappear into a sinkhole or Poulton-le-Fylde will suddenly melt and float off to block shipping lanes. Of course, the earth’s core could still flip, altering the world’s polarity and giving splitting headaches to the world’s pigeons, but that’s a worry we’ll all have to live with. Besides, it will soon be autumn and journalists will be back from their hangovers. No doubt they’ll have something that’s really worth our worrying about. They usually do.

David Waywell writes and cartoons at The Spine.