Media monkey business in the search for readers

Neil Clark: Why editors are seeking to raise readers’ blood pressure

BY Neil Clark LAST UPDATED AT 07:07 ON Wed 28 Oct 2009

What was your reaction on reading AA Gill's Sunday Times column in which he boasted about killing a baboon because he wanted to find out "what does it really feel like to shoot someone, or someone's close relative"?

The hope that a 'close relative' of the dead baboon would one day kill AA Gill?
That was mine too.
Baboons are, as Guy Norton, a wildlife expert, told the Guardian, "sentient and feeling animals who display similar characteristics to humans with strong parental bonds and sociable group behaviour". Yet here's a Sunday Times columnist boasting about how he shot one.
Gill's obnoxious piece is only the latest in a run of articles in Britain's newspapers whose sole aim seems to be to shock as many readers as possible.
Earlier this month, Jan Moir's Daily Mail article on the death of pop star Stephen Gately, in which she seemed to imply that his sudden death from a heart attack was caused by his homosexuality, led to a record number of calls to the Press Complaints Commission.
While in yesterday's Guardian, Tanya Gold dances on the grave of another recently deceased pop star, Michael Jackson, claiming he was only a "good" dancer, whose "greatest passion" was not music, or dancing, but "to sleep with children".

Gold's "greatest passion" appears to be attacking much-loved figures who are conveniently dead. In September, on the flimsiest of evidence, she tried to portray the late Queen Mother as a "cruel" Nazi-sympathising racist snob. (She's also attacked the Pope in a recent article - no doubt Mahatma Gandhi is next in the line of fire).
Why are we getting more and more of these deliberately offensive columns?
The answer is that the newspaper industry is in dire straits and in order to boost falling sales and get clicks on their websites editors are running articles that would have been spiked five or 10 years ago.

As a commenter to the Guardian website wrote in relation to Gold's Michael Jackson article: "Columnists and editors use one standard: the column is good if it generates comments, responses and controversy. This is deemed to be the only benchmark that matters."
Of course, newspapers have always chased readers. But today, with the very future of print journalism under threat, there is an increased urgency to grab readers' attention. And that means out with mature, reflective and nuanced articles which deal with important issues, and in with gratuitously offensive columns which set out to raise readers' blood pressure. The number of complaints or hostile comments a piece generates doesn't matter - the main thing is that the article, and the newspaper in question, receives the maximum publicity.
Journalism is following the path of British comedy where being shocking is deemed more important than making people laugh. Think of Jimmy Carr's latest crack on amputee soldiers, the obscenities of Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand on Radio Two and the episode of the IT Crowd which featured cannibalism.
So far we haven't had a journalist write of his/her experiences of eating human flesh. Or a columnist talking about his/her necrophilia or passion for sexual intercourse with animals.
But the way things are going, it won't be too long. · 

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