But hey, it's what the readers want

The "most read" lists on news websites seem to tell us some bracing things about what really interes

As I write, in the midst of a national terror alert complete with arrests, searches and travel disruption up and down the country, the "most read" story on the Guardian website is about Angelina Jolie. At the top of the Times's online chart, meanwhile, is something about the Olympic logo and the Mail's most popular web item of the moment is the latest on Wills and Kate.

The BBC, our leading online news provider, displays two live charts, one identifying the most read and the other the most emailed stories. Just now, terror arrests are number one among the most-read, but the top story that BBC readers are emailing to their friends carries the headline: "Experts warn over cat allergies". Number two is "Whiteboard projector safety fears".

If you were a newspaper editor worried about the long-term decline in your paper's sales (as they all are), what would you do with this information?

Bear in mind the watercooler test, the idea imported from US television newsrooms that "news" is what people talk about when they stand around the office water dispenser or coffee machine during breaks from work. If website hits are any indication - and editors are constantly being told to take the web seriously - then terror doesn't have anything like a monopoly of today's watercooler conversations.

So, what do you put on the front tomorrow? Is it terror - what you may think readers ought to know - or Angelina, or Wills and Kate - what it seems they want to know. Or even cat allergies, which interest readers so much that, en masse, they are ensuring that their friends read about them too?

Those may seem extreme alternatives, but they are routine. Something similar lay behind the sudden rise to fame of Mika Brzezinski, the US news presenter who refused to read the top item on a bulletin because it was about Paris Hilton. She preferred the one about the senator denouncing George Bush over Iraq.

Brzezinski tried to burn her script on air, and when that failed she fed it into a shredder, making herself a heroine to those who dislike celebrity culture. (You have probably read about her because the story was covered widely in this country - more widely, it appears, than in the US itself, where Ms Hilton was presumably still hogging the airtime.)

Such choices are tougher for broadcasters, because there can only ever be one first item in the bulletin. Newspapers can have it both ways: I am looking at a copy of the Sun and the big headline is about terror arrests, with three paragraphs of copy and a "turn" to more inside. But that is only the bottom third of the page: almost all the rest is devoted to puffing the paper's coverage inside of the concert for Diana. Posher papers pull similar tricks.

The pressure to appeal to the readers' baser instincts is nothing new, but those "most read" lists add a new dimension, and I suspect their influence will increase, not least because they sometimes spring surprises on journalists who flatter themselves they already know what the readers want.

BBC editors were baffled last September when their online list showed that 100,000 people a day were emailing each other a story about a Sudanese man who was caught in sexual congress with a goat and was ordered to marry it. An interesting enough story, you may think, but what made it perplexing was that the BBC had reported the news seven months earlier, in February.

It happened again a couple of weeks ago, when the top story on the list was about a woman who ripped off one of her boyfriend's testicles and put it in her mouth. That was reported in 2005.

Just a bit of fun with the archive, you may say, except that two national newspapers picked up these stories and published them as if they were news. They have been mocked for doing so, but hey, isn't it what the readers want?

A ladder to climb down

Four speed cameras are wrecked by vandals every week. Train operators are in secret talks with the government. There are plans for cinema-style ratings on internet sites. For every 1,000 assaults on NHS staff, just one person is prosecuted. The Major government considered banning Pinochet from Britain. Jock Stein missed a knighthood because his Celtic players got into a brawl.

Part of a week's haul of news stories in the national papers that we owe to the Freedom of Information Act, and the act is an even more potent tool for regional and local papers, and still more so for the ordinary citizen.

Will Gordon Brown allow it to be neutered, as Lord Falconer intended? Brown, and Jack Straw, now the minister responsible, must know it would wreck the new mood if they did. The constitutional affairs select committee report damning the Falconer plan offers them a ladder to climb down. Let us hope they make use of it.

Brian Cathcart is professor of journalism at Kingston University

Brian Cathcart is Director of Hacked Off. He tweets as @BrianCathcart.

This article first appeared in the 09 July 2007 issue of the New Statesman, The new terror