What is news?

With Kate Moss in the news this week over drugs allegations the question that begs asking is what is news? It’s had the press twisting around itself trying to figure out how to construct sentences which were not grossly hypocritical. Journos have been trying to work out how to report on something that really is a non-story. There are a lot of articles out there trying to work out why this is all so interesting just adding to the acreage of coverage (and of course this is one too).

The only story about Kate Moss is that she admitted taking drugs in 2001 and wasn’t ashamed about it. She admitted it while taking the Daily Mirror to court over allegations that she’d collapsed into a cocaine induced coma at a nightclub. She admitted she’d been taking drugs but that none of the other parts of the story were true. The Mirror after having to pay damages to her a month or so ago have released this story just to get her back. That is the real story.

There’s a famous phrase out there which fits this situation admirably, “News is what someone wants to suppress. Everything else is advertising”. Rather brilliantly several people claim credit for the phrase, at least two in the US Rubin Frank (former President of NBC News) and Bill Moyers another renound American Journalist. And in the UK we claim the phrase as being by Lord Rothmere. Which is all rather fitting in a way.

However this is not a new problem. Here’s a quote from a speech given by John Swinton, the former Chief of Staff at the New York Times. He was supposed to be toasting the free and independent press of 1880:

There is no such thing, at this date of the world’s history, as an independent press. You know it and I know it. There is not one of you who dares to write your honest opinions, and if you did, you know beforehand that it would never appear in print. I am paid weekly for keeping my honest opinions out of the paper I am connected with. Others of you are paid similar salaries for similar things, and any of you who would be so foolish as to write honest opinions would be out on the streets looking for another job.

If I allowed my honest opinions to appear in one issue of my paper, before twenty-four hours my occupation would be gone. The business of the journalist is to destroy the truth; to lie outright; to pervert; to vilify; to fawn at the feet of Mammon, and to sell the country for his daily bread. You know it and I know it and what folly is this toasting an independent press. We are the tools and vassals of the rich men behind the scenes. We are the jumping jacks, they pull the strings and we dance. Our talents, our possibilities and our lives are all the property of other men. We are intellectual prostitutes.

Increasingly we get our news (and the meaning of this word is changing) from the internet. Most people have the internet at work and check a news site from time to time. We get just the headlines and sometimes read more in depth. This leads us to a situation where we are increasingly looking to newspapers for opinion – as though we don’t trust our own. The Sun newspaper even has a section called “What should I think” at the end of some of their more “complex” stories.

So what’s the point of a story in which journalists can’t even have an opinion because it would be hypocritical? And they can’t call it news because everyone knew it already?

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