Sunday, July 24, 2011

What's news? Winehouse or Norway?

There's nothing like a good Twitter storm to get armchair indignation going. I didn't tweet about Amy Winehouse myself because my Twitter is about writing and none of my followers care two hoots what I think about her. But is her death more important than the Norwegian massacres?

As a former showbiz reporter for the News Of The World, you'd think that Dan Wootton couldn't make himself more unpopular without opening a kitten abattoir. But he had a good go at it with the following retweet on Saturday night:
I agree RT : Terribly depressing news about amy winehouse and utterly remarkable neither itv or bbc bulletins lead on it
That drew a vitriolic reaction at a rate of two or three tweets a minute, justifying what another tweeter said earlier today: "On Twitter, you can only be upset about one thing at a time." As is the way with Twitter, he drew some measured criticism:
Are you actually being serious?
you vile man
you insensitive wanker
Being controversial will get the prick attention. Desperate stuff though.
you deserve all the abuse you get.
if you weren't such a pointless bellend people wouldn't feel obliged to hurl personal abuse at you!
I particularly enjoyed the tweets from people saying they had no words to describe what they thought and yet managed to find words to describe their inarticulacy: "The world has to know what I think, even if I don't know myself!" As ever, plenty of people described their displeasure in terms of regurgitation:
made me feel sick!
Read and try not to vomit
Now, I'm prepared to bet that not one diced carrot passed upwards past a single epiglottis as a result of reading Wootton's retweet. But that sort of hysterical hyperbole is, ironically, just the sort of reaction that Wootton's former paper encouraged. Wootton might be hoist by his own petard in that regard, but the hostile tweeters are reacting just the way his former employers always wanted them to react. He and they are all the creatures of the News Of The World.

But my absolute favourite was the twit who asked, "How on earth can you call Norway yesterdays news?" Er, because it was. And, whatever you think of the issue, it's right for a journalist to ask which of these two big stories should take priority on Sunday's front pages. You can't expect Wootton to make a sophisticated argument about it in 140 characters on Twitter.

Maybe it's worth putting these things in historical perspective, given the old news adage that newspapers are the first draft of history.

With Winehouse's entry into the 27 club, it seems appropriate to compare her death with another illustrious member of the 'rock stars who died at 27' community: Jimi Hendrix. His passing in September 1970 came a few months after the Kent State massacre, in which US National Guardsmen shot dead four students who were protesting on a university campus in Ohio.

The two events didn't happen as closely together as Winehouse and Norway, but in the perspective of years we can ask the question, which has had a more dramatic effect on our culture? I reckon that more people know about the death of Jimi Hendrix than the Kent State massacre. I'm not putting a value judgement on either, but Wootton isn't wrong to ask whether the passing of Amy Winehouse will resonate in our culture for longer than the Norwegian massacre. 

Personally, I disagree with him. The Norwegian massacres are so horrific that they merit more than a day on the front pages and in the news bulletins of supposedly serious broadcasters. Outside Norway, however, people might think that the passing of a major musical artist has a greater effect on their lives. Beyond horror, most of the issues raised by the bombing and shooting are of little relevance to non-Norwegians. The UK, for example, already has some of the most stringent gun controls in the world. The USA generates enough "armed nutter rampage" stories of its own to fuel the gun-control debate there without looking overseas. 

A newspaper that is immersed in celebrity culture might feel that the death of Amy Winehouse is the newer story and therefore more suited to its front pages. Without Norway, it would have been the top story in every newspaper in the land. If she'd died on any day other than a Saturday, her picture would even be on the front of the Financial Times

If I were the editor of a still-active News Of The World, I would give Winehouse the lead with a big photo, while having a very prominent sidebar on Norway. If I were the editor of the Sunday Times, I'd splash with Norway but reserve the main picture for Winehouse, because that's the story that's going to get hands reaching out to grab my newspaper (unless I had something amazingly eye-catching from Norway). In either paper, I'd have twice as much inside on Norway as on Winehouse. As a reader, I'm more interested in the Oslo massacre.

Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain and John Lennon were all front-page news. It's not the working of a sick mind to ask whether Amy Winehouse should be too. 

Moral: Newspapers serve their readers, and they're very good at it. If some of them think that Amy Winehouse is the bigger story, it's their readers who should examine their consciences.

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