Strange Times III: The Ideal News Story
So the pattern started to become clear about what makes the perfect news story.
In the Daily Mail’s own words, you need to create a sense of outrage and fearfulness, but it helps if the main perpetrator is incompetent. The Czech artist David Cerny was paid £350,000 to commission artworks forming a huge sculpture of 27 nations for the atrium of the European Council, but admitted hoaxing the EU by knocking it up with his pals. Officials began to smell a rat when they noticed that Romania was represented by a Dracula theme park and Bulgaria by a Turkish lavatory, but in a typical state of indecision they went ahead with the opening anyway. Britain was represented on the sculpture as a blank space.
The ‘Big Brother’ show finally faded to the faintest of radar blips and was binned, but not before its producers burrowed below the ground zero of bad taste. In a twist of Jacobean grotesquery, they informed reality TV star Jade Goody that she had cervical cancer in the Big Brother house so that her tearful reaction could be captured live. Goody undermined the media leeches feeding on her by inviting camera crews in to film her wedding to a convicted felon, then remained in the spotlight as the press gloatingly ticked down the days to her death. Goody, from a deprived, abusive working class background, ultimately attained grace by confounding the critics who harped on about her intelligence; she behaved with dignity and intelligence all the way to her death at the age of 27.
As the credit crunch hit home, an article appeared in The Observer about hot new fashion scents; Wode, which sprays the wearer blue (sadly the effect quickly wears off), and ‘the very first internet perfume’, called ‘Violence’, a scent based on old photographs of skinheads hitting each other (I wish I was making this up). The makers say it smells of ‘sweat, boot polish, Indian food and warm bricks’, although if it’s based on old photos it should surely smell of developing fluid. Harvey Nichols announced their own best-selling scent, ‘Molecule’, which according to their advertising smells vaguely of something, and then of nothing. I guess it makes a change from most scents, which smell of roses or lemons.
Before he went his disastrous G8 summit meeting, George Bush reneged on his few climate change promises and bade farewell with the words ‘Goodbye from the world’s biggest polluter‘. He then punched the air and grinned as the French and British prime ministers looked on in shock.
On the subject of the environment, ministers announced that ‘Plan A’ (carbon reduction) had failed and that ‘Plan B’ (invent something fast) was now the only remaining solution. But planet management never gets easier. On the island of Macquarie, between Australia and Antarctica, cats left by ships got rid of the mice but preyed on rare flightless birds, so conservationists culled them, only to watch horrified as the rabbit population exploded and stripped the island of its vegetation, causing a landslip that wiped out a rare penguin colony. The chain of events is an example of ‘trophic cascade’ leading to ‘ecosystem meltdown’.
Mexico’s long border with the US, the world’s biggest drugs consumer, became the site of more killings than Iraq. The chances of kidnap became so high that we heard about microchip tracking devices being implanted into the arms of wealthy schoolchildren.
Meanwhile, Adam Deeley, 34, a mature British student, choked to death in an impromptu challenge to see who could eat the most fairy cakes at the Monkey Cafe, Swansea. He managed five at once. Or rather, he didn’t. Paging Mr Darwin.
In Britain where 1 in 10 children lives in a mixed-race family and mixed-race relationships are so common that traditionally distinct ethnic groups are disappearing, the royals are still getting up to speed. Prince Harry was rebuked for using the term ‘Paki’ and Prince Charles admitted to calling an Asian friend ‘Sooty’. Hating to miss out on any publicity, Margaret Thatcher’s daughter Carol publicly called the handsome and talented French-Congolese tennis champion Jo-Wilfried Tsonga a ‘golliwog’.
In Washington, a Christian group called Pray At The Pump started gathering around petrol pumps and praying to the Lord to lower prices. ‘If we keep this up,’ says its leader Rocky Twyman, ‘we can bring down prices to less than $2 a gallon.’
Thanks to rising oil and food prices, the production of a new food staple was stepped up in Haiti as mud cakes soared in popularity; the baked grey discs of dirt apparently taste like – well, dirt with margarine in, but stop stomachs from feeling empty.
If the starving weren’t prevented from leaving by US coastguard patrols, they could have gone to stare through shop windows at the Hermes ‘Birkin’ handbag, which went on sale in New York for $37,000 (actually, the one pictured above is even more expensive than that). At the time of the stock market crash it was still selling well. And in case that’s not enough, Louis Vuiton started selling custom-made travel caviar sets for all your urgent caviar-on-the-go needs, while spa treatment centres offered ‘caviar face packs’.
Advertising got even more slippery. The film ‘Sex And The City’ had – unsurprisingly – 95 brands cunningly dotted through its running time. Shane Meadows’ neo-realist film ‘Somers Town’ went one better and had the entire film sponsored by Eurostar trains. But it was in black and white and he’s an auteur, so that’s all right.
Arnold Schwarzenegger championed gay marriage in California. Mormon-backed Proposition 8 promptly banned it again, leaving the 18,000 couples who got hitched in the four and a half month period when it was legal stranded and exposed to the proposers’ next attempt – to retroactively annul the marriages. The California Supreme Court upheld the proposition but invoked a grandfather clause allowing the existing marriages to stand.
The upside to all of this has been a massive increase in quality political reporting, even if it appears away from the mainstream. In the New Statesman, David Goodhart writes that Brexit debates are encouraging an increasingly tolerant society as people hammer through their differences across parties and class divides – and the data backs him up.