Fox (n): carnivore of genus vulpes; crafty person; scavenger; (vb) to confuse; -ed (adj): to be drunk.

Wednesday, 30 May 2012

General principles.

THE newspapers of Britain are peculiar things.

They're different to the ones you get elsewhere. They are mischievous, punchy, and capable of reaching between 20 and 30 million readers every day, depending on the day of the week and time of the year.

That's a third to a half of the population of these islands, roughly. Their websites reach tens of millions more all around the world.

The phone-hacking and corruption scandal which currently has its claws around our neck aside - and which I'll insist to the day I die is the result of the actions of a handful of people and not my profession at large - it is an industry which the rest of the world wishes it had.

Newspapers in Ghana, Australia, America, Estonia, every country around the world, are the descendants of the trade which began in Fleet Street in 1702, with the first edition of the Daily Courant in a room above a pub.


It's the first thing we'd recognise as a newspaper, but pamphlets and newsheets had been around for a good century or more before that. Wynkyn de Worde set up the first printing press in Fleet Street in 1500, and during the English Civil War both sides used their own newsheets to spread propaganda.

If you relied on the 'newspapers' of the time, both sides won the Battle of Naseby.

Because of that history and because we're a small bunch of islands with a lot of people, the business model that evolved was to sell on the basis of politics and class. It's worked incredibly well. Despite the impact of television and the internet most newspapers still turn a profit which would be considered very healthy by any other industry's standards.

Elsewhere in the world as people have evolved their own democracies, achieved independence and found the wit and wealth to care about what people in power get up to, newspapers are different. The ones in America for example have broad geographical distances to cover and in order to get the most readers they are as bland as possible; I tend to use them as sleep aids.

But everywhere in the world they do the one thing which Fleet Street taught them: they reflect the views of The Reader. In Australia the politics is not about Mother England so much as what's happening in Japan, Indonesia, and New Zealand; the human interest stories are about Aussies and 'larrikins'. In Ghana they're rampantly homophobic and have quite shocking detail about deaths and murders; when a body is found with an axe buried in it there is a picture and blood-curdlingly detailed description.

In Italy pictures are used which we'd never publish for reasons of general taste and decency - I know of one picture of a female celebrity who willingly flashed her tampon string at a camera, which was turned down everywhere else before an Italian mag printed it on the front page.

The newspapers of the world are not perfect. They're staffed by human beings who make mistakes and generally cause trouble everywhere they go. They have the same proportion of utter shits as every other industry. In other countries the journos don't drink; sometimes the pay is so bad they take their own pictures, write their own headlines and sell their own advertising as well.

And here in the country where it all began newspapers all moved out of Fleet Street a long time ago. We're now a diaspora of people who consider themselves part of something greater than their office or company, and although we rarely see ourselves as caretakers of any kind of flame we do all feel a responsibility to be Puckish, to irritate people on behalf of The Reader and tell them things they'd want to know. To stick two fingers up, just on general principles.

We're doing it while fighting against the instant news of the internet and 24-hour TV without many weapons, except our pens and an ability to stick our noses where they're not wanted.

Some newspapers will lose. Some will die - the Daily Courant did, and dozens like it over the years.

But there are some things newspapers have which the internet and TV do not.

We still have those 20 or 30 million faithful readers. Despite the Leveson Inquiry and a queue of MPs lining up to say how much they hate everything we do, politicians are still relying on us to take sides, to disseminate their leaks, win their petty squabbles, detail their victories and get them re-elected. Sometimes we get them sacked instead, which is why they don't like us much. A variety of high-profile people need us for their own careers.

The TV isn't allowed to take sides. The internet, as good a force as it can be, cannot be trained in the laws of rape, contempt, defamation, or be relied upon as having done even so much as checked Nickitpedia before tweeting something as fact.

We also have people in charge of us who are not journalists. They're business people, shareholders, corporations and moguls. Some of them are pretty good, and some of them aren't exactly in it for the long term. Newspapers have to fight their corner with them, as much as we have to fight for The Reader's attention, for every story, fight politicians and litigious celebrities and idiots who think they can get £10,000 from us for a grainy picture of someone who looks a bit like someone else.

And that's almost the very best thing about us, because we are fighters. Sometimes scrappy and rarely following the rules, but we'll fight until our pens run dry and even after that.

We have reach, and influence, and the world is full of news for us to chew upon. There is no reason that we should die.

We simply need to find the one person out there - perhaps even sitting reading this - who has a business plan which will make the internet pay. To write the computer code or have the big idea which will allow The Reader to sign up to the news they want, to build their own daily newspaper online in which breaking news is free and exclusive content - things like columnists, scoops, investigations and bought-in sets of pictures - cost you a penny to view. And which, in turn, will pay for the paper version, put some investment back into journalism and keep all the funny, witty, clever and screwed up people who become journalists off the streets.

Whoever does that will become a billionaire, and more importantly will be making sure that two fingers carry on getting stuck up, just on general principles.

Imagine what the world would be like if all the people who hate us had to hate something else instead.