In this last post of the month, instead of re-telling a current news story, I shall again comment on the situation to which Take 2 is addressed; hence also the form of address which I am trying to develop here. In short, imagine the news painted by J.M.W. Turner, i.e. composed to show how ‘all that is solid melts into air’; a form of depiction or objectification which reveals both the particular nature and also the general movement of the objects/people/people as objects which are being described. Thus the first reason for Take 2 is truth. Take 2 takes it that news which is true to life must be constituted in a more dynamic form – more dynamic than the spuriously fixed character which old-fashioned reporting has acquired; more true to life than latterday versions of New Journalism which seem to have become trite as well as long-winded. As well as being good for news, however, Take 2 also has an eye on what’s good for the news business – especially since this is now so much in doubt. At a time when basic information is freely and almost immediately available from a combination of Twitter and Google-driven algorithms, what can professional reporters do that news consumers will be willing to pay for? Whenever this question is posed, the stock answer is: expertise. It is said that the people formerly known as readers, erstwhile consumers who are now more like ‘prosumers’ (producer-consumers) of news, will pay for access to expert knowledge embodied in the journalists employed by commercial news organisations. Thus will the news business be saved, allegedly. This may turn out to be the case, up to a point; but the gaping hole in the expert-journalist model is that expertise is already widely and freely available in the blogosphere. Instead of solving the question hanging over the commercial viability of news, the stock answer does little more than move it to a different place in cyberspace. Expertise may be important, but it is not, on its own, sufficient. In response, Take 2 proposes that composition should take pride of place, alongside expert knowledge but also slightly superior to it. This is to say that the future of professional news reporting ultimately depends on the ability of news reporters as writers – writers who can compose reports of events which would prompt readers to say ‘so that’s what it was all about!’; even if some of those readers had been present themselves at the event which the professional reporter is reporting on. On the relatively small number of occasions when I have proposed composition as journalism’s ‘killer app’, the response has been that the punters won’t get it, or words to that effect. But in the remainder of this post I demonstrate that there is already a widespread appetite for literary composition, as shown in the popular pleasure to be had from copywriting in both tabloid journalism and advertising. We journalists should seek to extend this appetite, i.e. create a new need for a new level of composition which would become the defining characteristic of professional news journalism. “Flapjack Whack Rap Claptrap: School ban on ‘dangerous’ triangle oat snacks.” Beneath the skyline, “Exclusive: ‘Elf and Safety Nonsense”, this was theSun’s front page headline on Monday 25th March 2013, introducing a story about the head teacher of a Canvey Island school who banned triangular flapjacks after a boy was reportedly injured by a ‘flying oaty morsel’. The ‘sore eye’ suffered by a Year 7 pupil would not normally constitute headline news. The story was partly propelled by the Sun’s no-nonsense attitude towards official busy-bodies and officious do-gooders; but it only made pole position because it lends itself to the composition of a humorous headline followed by tongue-in-cheek body copy. At the end of the first para, ‘morsel’ is knowingly anachronistic. What will they think of next – ‘damsel’? This is headline news for people who don’t believe everything they read in the newspapers, written by journos who don’t always take themselves too seriously, either. But theSun’s subs’ desk is notoriously serious about its standard of writing; and rightly so, since the connection readers make with the Sun occurs largely through shared enjoyment of what the subs have composed for them. That’s how the punters know it’s the Sun shining. As a tiny example of literary composition, ‘flapjack whack rap claptrap’ bears comparison with Dylan Thomas’ ‘sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack, fishingboatbobbing sea’, in the opening stanza of Under Milk Wood (1954). There is musicality in both. Yet compared to Thomas’ poetry, the Sun’s playful prose is something of a one-chord band. Most of the verbal compositions appearing under its red top are the accompaniment to a broadly cynical ethos, in which playfulness is close to being the last resort of the spiritually defeated. In constructing a connection between reader and writer, therefore, the Sun’s sub-editor/composers are also setting levels of disengagement among the reading public, whose presence in public life is diminished accordingly. Nonetheless, much of the bond between the UK’s biggest selling daily newspaper and its readership, is composed through wordplay. Composition is key to the Sun’s continued success. Advertising copy also uses verbal composition to build connections with readers, viewers and listeners. Unlike Sun-speak, it plays in different registers, ranging from humour and whimsy to love, despair and conviviality. While some such compositions are tedious and sentimental, others are engagingly poetic, e.g. the TV advert for McDonald’s (Leo Burnett 2013) which repeats the refrain ‘Nah, you’re all right’, in order to choreograph the quasi-courtship dance between a teenage boy and his mum’s new live-in partner. But the drawback attached to this kind of composition is its permanent attachment to the commodities it advertises. In the last instance, however beautifully told, these miniatures of human life only exist so that their paymaster-brands can assume greater significance – taking on larger-than-life dimensions. Editorial which is well-composed but one-dimensional versus advertising copy that spans a wider range but always in praise of marketable things and their eventual superiority over people: sounds like we are stuck between a rock and a hard place. But what if we could have news reporting that spans as wide a range of human attributes, without being attached either to corporate brands or to a specific brand of barely disguised cynicism? Wouldn’t that be worth paying for? Could this even be the future of journalism, now that so much basic information is freely available by algorithm? Take 2 is an experiment in composition which also aims to affirm the wider role of composition in the future of news reporting.
The Venezuelan government had to abandon plans to put the corpse ofcommandante Hugo Chavez on permanent display; but Nelson Mandela, anti-apartheid freedom fighter and former president of South Africa, is already embalmed; his lively face all but frozen. Propped up in a hospital bed, having ‘enjoyed a full breakfast’ – we are told, but it’s hard to see how his frame, thin as an Indian dhosa, would manage to absorb it, lungs recently drained of excess fluid, Mandela’s bodily existence is propping up a regime which might otherwise collapse into bloody recriminations and racial violence. As the nation prays for ‘Madiba’ (his Xhosa clan name, now a term of endearment both for the man himself and for his trademark batik shirts), so his every breath is a rasping prayer for South Africa to survive. In previous guises – lawyer, activist, ‘terrorist’, political prisoner, presidential candidate, head-of-state, elder statesman, Nelson Mandela was called upon to speak. In the 1990s his careful diction became the watchword for post-apartheid integrity. From his Ribena lips – purplish on brown skin – national integration sounded possible. Recognition of who he was speaking to and what they needed to hear, was audible in every utterance. Being the person that everyone else could hear themselves echoed in, made Mandela the nation: l’etat c’est lui (not you, Louis). Today he may be barely able to talk but it doesn’t matter; he could be suffering from locked-in syndrome and he would still be locked in to a statesman-like role. Only death can free this 94-year-old man from the responsibility of being Mandela.
Killed because of a meat pie, the girl with the Cher Lloyd look, and the first dog went for her throat, allegedly, though if she was alone in the house at the time how would anyone know? The small house for small people made of small red bricks which tone in with the pink lips and rosy-tinted skin of the hairless bull mastiff with its pink thing ready and erect. As depicted in the Facebook photos shown on the Daily Mirror website which may (or may not) belong to dog-owner Beverley or schoolfriend-of-the-deceased Kimberley; and why not call them Sentimenterley and Fecklessley while we’re at it? Knowing nothing about any of these people, dead or alive, except what fits the shock horror format, it would be oh so easy to slot the whole lot of them into Shameless. The People from the Estate, Episode 553. Head lowered, the police constable performing a guard dog routine at the front door, can even get away with burying his chin in his chest to stave off the cold; that, or he’s going for a bit of shut-eye. Either way it’s not the mark of respect mandated for, say, Royalty. Instead, in her untimely death, Jade Anderson has joined the firm of working class teenagers whose lives only come to the fore when they briefly coincide with scripted scenes of anti-social behaviour. But what if she just wasn’t true to the form someone else filled in for her? Perhaps one day in March, cold and bright, she recognised the sunset echoed in red brick turning pink. Maybe she looked at the head of Neo, another bull mastiff, and compared it to that of Samuel Beckett – lugubrious, muscular and austere. As you and I would do. In any case, let’s learn how to write about her properly – in a way that appropriates what she really was – instead of typing her up and moving along to the next specimen in the pool.
The Emperor’s wife wears new clothes. Hair piled high, Peng Liyuan, accompanying President Xi Jinping on his first tours of state (four states – Russia, Tanzania, South Africa, Congo – toured in as many days), wears a tailored suit made of Chinese brocade. Underneath, a ruffled blue blouse; more Adam Ant than Madame Mao. Graciously the former folk singer bends forward to embrace the little black boy sent to bow before her on the red carpet at Dar Es Salaam airport (ruddy, muddy floodwater is running riot through other parts of the city). In scarlet tunics with gold insignia, troopers in Tanzania’s top brass band are playing marches that Queen Victoria might have heard more than a hundred years ago. (Though not here in Africa. With gunboats to perform her diplomacy, the Great Queen herself never traveled south of Italy.) Meanwhile a chain gang of Cypriot ministers hurriedly disembarks from the Belgian Air Force plane bringing them to Brussels for bail-out. Discreetly ducking their heads into a fleet of waiting limos. Mercedes, inevitably. Made solemn by German probity; having laughed up to now on Russia’s funny money, they are captivated by Empire EU – just as surely as captured terrorists.
Hands raised, thumb and forefinger pressed ever-so lightly together, she might be the Pope in the act of transubstantiation – turning bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ. Or a conductor poised to compose the orchestra. But she is Aung San Suu Kyi, and this is transubstantiation in reverse. Fine boned and slim figured, pictured next to Hillary Clinton last year she made the Secretary of State look like her….secretary. What possessed grande dame Rodham to don a damned Oriental tunic? Inevitably: mutton/lamb; tart/geisha. And too many big white American teeth compared to the close-mouthed, long-suffering elegance of Suu Kyi, who as leader of Burma’s National Democratic League underwent nearly two decades in detention, buried under a pile of international awards (start with the Nobel Peace Prize, work your way down), and still came out looking like Audrey Hepburn. During that time BBC newscasters had even learned to say her name with the pious punctiliousness previously reserved for ‘Mandela’ (lengthen the ‘e’ to make it sound more African), and, even earlier, Father Jerzy Popiełuszko (-lusko pronounced ‘whooshko!’ to beatify the Polish pro-Solidarity Catholic priest murdered by Stalinoid secret police in 1984). But Aunty Suu’s no longer coming up rosary. In recent photos she is confronted by Burmese peasants protesting against the expansion of a Chinese-sponsored copper mine, and demonstrating against the use of white phosphorus (grenades of burning flakes) to put down their previous protest. These faces not nearly so finely drawn; their pigmentation far ruddier than Suu Kyi’s. But suddenly her poise seems more like a self-interested pose; the posture of a political player still wearing the suit of sainthood. The saviour’s Body becoming stale bread.
In Cyprus, as successive ministers climb out of chauffeur driven cars and make their way into the cabinet meeting, we can see that the government is divided. Between those men who lean forward, shoulders hunched; and others who lean back, stomach out and proud. Because man minus belly is like a house without a porch. Haven’t you heard that one before? Of course it’s not good to mock local people with their own proverbs: snide, even when gently applied. But hard to resist, when TV footage shows Cyprus swathed in Spring sunshine – the dappled light of English early evenings seems to last all day there, while here it has snapped cold and bleak again. Difficult not to snigger when pointing out that Cyprus counts for only 0.2 per cent of the Euro-economy; and, instead of propaganda leaflets or food parcels, the RAF is planning to drop a million Euros onto British civil servants and soldiers to ensure they don’t lose a penny from the bank account levy. Sorry, Cyprus, but to brutish Northerners you seem to have been living a charmed life – whether or not based on Russia’s funny money. Please excuse our lack of sympathy now it’s suddenly cut short.
From today’s edition of the Times of India online: Man strangles wife for questioning him. Youth slits his own throat in front of estranged ex-girlfriend. Girl dies after suitor sets her on fire. Sexually harassed victim succumbs to burns. Husband’s ‘friends’ gang rape wife. Mob attacks women for throwing youth off a female-only train. What accounts for so many sex and violence stories in perhaps the most po-faced publication in India? Maybe there is simply more journalism and more policing; so that the gang rape of a woman in ‘her shanty adjoining the Malanga railway compound wall’, whose husband’s occupation is given as ‘growing vegetables near the tracks’, no longer goes unreported. Previously of little import, attention paid to the life of the poor may point to the progressive expansion of the state and civil society. Alternatively, perhaps the battle of the sexes and its recently elevated position in the news agenda, is shaping up to be the shared territory – the mediating space – for negotiating the battery of acute contradictions now assaulting India. Opportunity and constraint – propulsion and coercion in the anarchy of economic development – played out in front line stories from the sex war. Paradox so prolific that news reporting can barely contain it – even if ‘news’ was originally formulated by the British in the attempt to straighten everything out. Thus mention of ‘a eunuch sodomised in a moving van’, can only have issued from the contradiction between pre-modern methods of sexual repression and population control, e.g. castration, versus modern manufacturing epitomised in the automobile. The farm labourer whose proposal of marriage was rejected by the parents of a ‘Class XII’ student, is a modern fable of Mr Going Nowhere versus Ms Upwardly Mobile. Similarly, the youth who slit his throat in front of his ex-girlfriend, is reported as studying for a ‘correspondence’ degree while working as a day labourer. Doing his utmost; but still the girl’s mother persuaded her to reject him. Social mobility – and the people it leaves behind, was also a factor in the wife-killing case. When the construction worker from Gandhinagar (named after India’s most famous man of peace) strangled his spouse, the two of them were alone in their house in because their children had ‘gone for tuitions’. Contradiction is writ large both in what’s occurring and in the way it is written up. In the midst of epochal change, there are linguistic leftovers from 1940s English, the way the sahibs would have spoken it: the wife-killer on the run is ‘absconding’; a suitor is spurned by his ‘lady love’; the women-only train is a ‘ladies’ special’; the gang of rapists, two of them known personally to the rape-victim’s husband, ‘thrash him too’. What blackguards! Meanwhile the newspaper which looks to the sobriety of the London Times, is all but drunk on advertising. Adverts weave in and out of editorial columns like a man staggering home from the pub. There are even hyper-linked words which you would think must lead to further information on the story, only to find that they offer up absolutely unrelated advertising. Hard news, hard sell, a country finding it hard to make terms with the pace of change.
Billowing white smoke transforms a jowly old man into the new pope. White hat, white cassock, pure white to the point of being invisible, he might float off into the ether if not for the thick silk sash tethered around his waist. Plush red curtains parted to reveal a pair of aviator spectacles (as worn by Euro bureaucrats in the 1980s), and a hand which moves to bless the crowd by making the sign of the cross; but hesitates and instead only waves. Intermittently. Wet and shiny – rain and joy, in the square below the balcony, the faces of the faithful peer out from underneath their umbrellas, transfixed on the man-made-God. Fecklessly they’ve already forgotten the previous apparition (Benny? Bennett? Benedict!), who drew himself out of the magic circle and nearly broke the spell!
His head too heavy: he has to crane his neck to keep it from falling onto his chest. The wave in his snow white hair, vestige of Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger; wartime, Bavarian boy. Pale lips puckering to kiss the sumptuous head of a new born baby. Waving his hand in the familiar blessing, freely given for the last time:…et spiritus sancti. Stick thin, unlike the enormous litter of red-topped cardinals – all puppy fat and porky pig hats. Hail the frail old man in a floor-length, all-white double-breasted greatcoat (Sly Stone would have loved it; the SS would have killed for it). Il Papa, ex-ex cathedra, sitting motionless as the world recedes away from him, never to return. Less than eight years since he prayed: Lord Jesus, let me be the rigorous scholar, the generous pastor that leads your flock to resurrection. He Is Risen, the Supreme Pontiff must have thought, in early moments of unbridled optimism. But look at you now, hollow man; emptied out like so many churches. No funeral barge – of course, you’re floating away to a secluded summer residence; but in the Vatican the papal apartments are now sealed, CSI-style, and your faith is already ashes in your mouth.