Debating current affairs
Paul Thomas is a Weekend Herald columnist

Paul Thomas: Trashy and trivial but it's riveting news

Critics need to lighten up and realise the light side existed long before Twitter or Paris Hilton

Once upon a time, in the days before spin doctors and social media and celebrity culture, there was this thing called the news.

It came in great slabs of newsprint written by proper journalists, deeply serious individuals who never allowed their opinions or personalities to intrude on their sacred duty to give us the facts, or through the modulated tones of broadcasters so poker-faced they made the Easter Island statues seem like silent movie actors.

Then everything got dumbed down. Out went objective reporting and informed analysis, in came gossip, beat-ups and sensationalism. The news has been buried beneath a landslide of trivia.

Or so we are often told. In fact, since well before Twitter or Paris Hilton or lame newsreader banter, people have been asking, "What have they done to the news?"

In 1899, British Prime Minister Lord Salisbury described the recently launched Daily Mail as "written by office boys for office boys". The Mail was cheaper, more populist and more concise than its rivals; within six years of its launch it was the biggest-selling newspaper in the world.

Lord Northcliffe, the Mail's founder, defined news as "what someone, somewhere wants to suppress".

At first glance this seems self-dramatising, as if news organisations are defying the powers that be to uncover Watergate-style conspiracies at the heart of government on a daily basis.

But perhaps Northcliffe simply meant that there's always someone who thinks a given story or news item is trivial or sensationalist or offensive or otherwise inappropriate, and therefore shouldn't see the light of day.

If so, he was assuredly right.

Melbourne's Age newspaper recently published a diatribe - by a journalist - who has a problem with the "post-pubescent babes with their urgent and empty chatter" on commercial television news.

"The hair, usually blonde, tumbles artfully onto the shoulders. The eyes, usually blue, sparkle brightly. The complexions are perfect. The teeth are arctic white. The breasts are pert and perky."

A cynic - or psychologist - might suggest the close scrutiny and the fact that he used two words which mean much the same thing to describe these young women's breasts when one would have been gratuitous indicate that he's fascinated by what he purports to deplore, as the censorious so often are. Others might simply suggest that he stop whingeing and change channels. After all, Australia does have two publicly funded TV networks.

You sometimes hear people just back from overseas say that they really miss not being able to read the Guardian or the New York Times or the Sydney Morning Herald. This lament is invariably followed by the assertion that "there's nothing in" our newspapers.

This is fatuous on several counts. First, those foreign papers can be read at the click of a mouse. Second, our newspapers often run syndicated articles from the papers that the globe trotters are pining for. Third, the main difference between papers here and overseas is that ours carry a lot of local news.

While what's happening at home might not be as interesting or dramatic as what's going on in the US or Europe, that's hardly the journalists' fault. Like so many aspects of New Zealand life, it reflects our size and isolation.

There's a strand of high-minded sanctimoniousness in most complaints about the sorry state of "the news".

While the ostensible target of the criticism is those who produce the news, the real target is those who consume it - the unworldly, incurious, easily titillated mainstream that news organisations cater to because, well, it's the mainstream.

The critics should lighten up. There's nothing wrong with leavening the hard, serious news - which by definition is mostly bad - with a certain amount of entertainment and trivia. Some of it's quite rewarding.

For instance, surely the most intriguing news item of the week concerned former All Black halfback Byron Kelleher's rumoured affair with Princess Charlene, wife of Prince Albert II of Monaco.

As her name suggests, Charlene isn't to the manor born. She's a former South African Olympic swimmer. But she has the title, so if the rumours are correct Kelleher has the unusual distinction of having had relationships with a Princess and a porn star. Consolation, perhaps, for his three World Cup disappointments.

In 2005/06 Kelleher shared a $1 million lifestyle block near Tauranga with Kaylani Lei who went on to win an AVN Award - the so-called Oscars of porn - for best group sex scene. It's not known how many others she shared the award with.

It's possible, though, that Kelleher was unaware that Lei made her living by having sex in front of a camera. When her cellphone containing explicit pictures of the pair was stolen, he called in the police.

- NZ Herald

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