Watching brief - Peter Wilby is immune to Alsatian Syndrome
Alsatian Dog Syndrome grips the press, a day without the banalities of the live update, and what can
Passing through Cardiff the other day, I bought a copy of the South Wales Echo and there inevitably it was: a big headline announcing "Hunt for Hoodie". A local "teenage robber wearing a hoodie" had "struck" twice in ten days, stealing cash and phone cards. On another page, the Echo, in a well-crafted feature, reported how it had sent two teenagers shopping, first with, then without hoods. Hoodless, the boys were treated better by shop assistants.
The entire country is in the grip of what I used to call "Alsatian dog syndrome". A child would be bitten by an Alsatian in a savage, headline-making attack. Then all of a sudden, Alsatian dogs would be attacking children everywhere. The dogs had not succumbed to a new fashion for biting children; newspapers had succumbed to a fashion for reporting such attacks. Editors, who normally insist that only "human bites dog" is news, had called for more Alsatian dog stories and every freelance and agency reporter was looking for them.
Something similar is happening with hoodies. It started with Bluewater shopping centre in Kent which, in a smart bit of PR, banned hoodies from its precincts, allegedly because other shoppers felt threatened by them. Now the wearers are blamed for every petty crime even though, I suspect, evidence of hood-wearing often exists only in reporters' and editors' imaginations.
I do not wish to be unkind to the victims. As was pointed out on BBC TV's Question Time recently, crime statistics are of no interest to them: from their perspective, the incidence of violent crime is 100 per cent. But before you believe the picture of a country in the grip of hooded terror, ask yourself the following questions. Have you yourself been the victim of a hoodie attack? Have you personally witnessed a hoodie attacking somebody else? Have you heard a first-hand account (and I mean first-hand) from somebody who has been so attacked?. If the answer to all three questions is "no", then, for you, the incidence of hooded crime is 0 per cent.
Journalists do not make good trade unionists. Their individual bargaining power far outweighs anything unions can do collectively. John Humphrys or Jeremy Paxman could get himself a big pay rise by threatening to defect to, say, Sky; a school cleaner's threat to move to a neighbouring borough won't impress anybody. That is why the cleaner needs a union. So there was something heart-warming about Humphrys, Paxman and others joining the BBC strike - though I am not entirely convinced they should oppose cuts that affect pen-pushers in finance and human resources far more than they affect news-gatherers and programme-makers.
In any case, I can't be the only one who enjoyed watching news for a day without those tiresome "live updates" where Andrew Marr (or whoever) stands outside Downing Street (or wherever) exchanging banalities with the studio. I don't suppose they cost much, but Mark Thompson, the BBC director general, could surely find a few savings there.
I shall watch with interest the progress of David Aaronovitch in the Times and Simon Jenkins in the Guardian. Each used to write a column for the other paper, and so they have in effect swapped places.
It is a media commonplace that columnists often "work" in one paper but not another. The Times always seemed the natural home for the pomposity of William Rees-Mogg; during his stint on the Independent, a younger paper with a younger readership, he just seemed ridiculous. Melanie Phillips, on the Guardian, seemed an excellent columnist as part of a six-day diet that included numerous other voices. On the Sunday Times and the Observer, her range was too narrow to carry the weight of being either paper's keynote commentator. Now, her Daily Mail role as an ayatollah of Middle England is success of a kind - though a sad fate for a woman of such formidable intellect.
The switch of papers may seem good for both Aaronovitch and Jenkins. Aaronovitch, dedicated new Labourite, joins a paper that has given Tony Blair almost uncritical backing. Jenkins, iconoclastic and unpredictable, fits the radical traditions of the Guardian. Each has found his natural home, you may think. But it is not so simple.
Both men flourished, as good columnists
often do, by writing against the grain of their readership. Aaronovitch challenged Guardian readers, who are mostly to the left of Blair; sometimes the page seemed to shake with his anger at their old Labour dim-wittedness. Jenkins, conversely, challenged Times readers who incline to consensual thinking; his method was to wait for a consensus to form and then write against it with withering contempt. I am sure they will make successful transitions, but I suspect it will be some months before they find the right voices for their new homes.
Amanda Platell is away
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