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Chattering classes

Who will mourn the passing of the News of the World? The staff will, especially those not recruited by The Sun on Sunday. A pure-minded lover of Pakistani cricket might, thanking “the fake sheikh” for exposing the national team’s easy corruption. Ian Jack writes.

india Updated: Jul 10, 2011 21:42 IST

Who will mourn the passing of the News of the World? The staff will, especially those not recruited by The Sun on Sunday. A pure-minded lover of Pakistani cricket might, thanking “the fake sheikh” for exposing the national team’s easy corruption.

This week everyone hates the News of the World, and yet only last Sunday around 2.6 million people liked it enough to buy a copy. They didn’t mind what they were reading, so long as they didn’t know how some of it came to be written. And they didn’t mind that too much, either — if they knew about phone hacking, they overlooked it — until it came to the case of the abducted and then murdered girl, Milly Dowler.

We own what the Victorians knew as our baser selves. When the News of the World first appeared in 1843, Britain was embarking on a long age of public respectability in which salacious accounts of sex and violence were hard to find. The News of the World made this a specialism, mainly by reporting court cases no other paper would touch.

The Education Acts of 1870 and 1880 spread literacy through every social class and hugely expanded the reading public. By 1914, the paper was selling a couple of million copies a week, all of them published on a day nominally devoted to worship and quiet reflection. In its peak year, 1949, the circulation averaged close to 8.5 million and required not a parcels van or two but a whole train to take Scottish copies north from the presses in Manchester.

It was, by then, the world’s biggest-selling newspaper.

In the late 19th century, social reformers and educationalists thought of reading in terms of self-improvement and a more skilled workforce — a moral and economic good.

A new breed of newspaper publishers, of which Alfred Harmsworth (later Lord Northcliffe) was by far the most inventive, saw a less worthy side. He spread the message to his staff like a preacher: roughly, to subvert the words of Philip Larkin, readers were forever surprising a hunger in themselves to be more trivial.

Northcliffe divided news into two main divisions — reports of happenings and what he called “talking points”, where his reporters would develop the topics people were discussing, or stimulate new ones.

“What a great talking point,” he told Clarke when he read that Paris had decided skirts should be long. “Every woman in the country will be excited about it. We must start an illustrated discussion on ‘THE BATTLE OF THE SKIRTS: LONG v SHORT.’ Get different people’s views. Cable to New York and Paris, get plenty of sketches by well-known artists… print as many as you can … plenty of legs.”

Such enterprising devotion to the frivolous — and to women — had never before been heard in a newspaper office. For the moment Rebekah Brooks stays, but all around her the great age of Britain’s popular press is tumbling squalidly to its close..

(The Guardian)