Watching brief - Peter Wilby fails to emote

Increasingly, newspapers have decided that there isn't a market for information and analysis, so the

It was Walt Whitman who wrote: "Do I contradict myself?/Very well then I contradict myself,/ (I am large, I contain multitudes.)" But it could equally well have been Paul Dacre, editor of the Daily Mail.

His paper has conducted a furious campaign to persuade the government to stop deporting failed asylum-seekers to Zimbabwe. On their return home, these people face imprisonment, torture and possibly death, it reports. The Home Office, thunders the Mail, "is so focused on meeting ambitious targets for deporting failed asylum-seekers that it has lost sight of the true horrors unfolding in Zimbabwe".

Excuse me. Isn't the Mail vitriolically opposed to asylum-seekers? Aren't the government's "ambitious" deportation targets the result of intense pressure from the Mail and similar papers? Wasn't the Mail, even after it started banging on about Zimbabwe, still berating Tony Blair for allowing too many illegal immigrants to stay?

You can try, if you like, to find coherence here. The Mail is only against bogus asylum-seekers, and people from Zimbabwe are clearly genuine ones. (All of them?) Lots of migrants get smuggled in here in the backs of lorries, but persecuted Zimbabweans don't do that. (None of them?) But if you carry on like this, you will give yourself a headache. The Mail doesn't bother. Newspapers are required to "contain multitudes", not to strive for consistency.

Some newspapers still pay lip-service to their conventional role of providing information, analysis, argument and disclosure. But increasingly they have decided there isn't a market for these things. So they offer instant emotional responses: indignation, pity, hatred, fear, admiration, and so on. If these responses sometimes conflict with each other, that is the nature of emotion, which is transient and irrational. As Andrew Marr said on the BBC on Saturday: "We used to have movements. Now we have moments."

Which brings me naturally to the Live 8 concert, on which Marr was commenting and where the button being pressed was pity laced with indignation. In 1985, people were asked to give money. This time they just had to emote. The Sunday newspapers had no trouble with that. The Observer's man in Hyde Park, Euan Ferguson, reported "tears coursing down my cheeks". The Sunday Times, behaving as though it were the Independent for a day, carried the front-page headline: "Is that loud enough for you?" beneath a picture of McCartney, Geldof et al. The Sunday Telegraph, under its new editor, Sarah Sands, featured, in its eight-page "souvenir of the greatest show on earth", a giant picture of Sir Elton John and Pete Doherty kissing moistly. I would wager that this was the first full-frontal, male-on-male kiss to appear in one of the Telegraph papers - at least without a headline along the lines of "Should the BBC have shown this filth?"

As John Harris wrote in the Independent on Sunday, the concert was best compared to the public demonstrations after the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. The youthful Anna Stothard - whom Sands has recruited to write a "university life" column - made a similar point, but said it was OK because the power of "Make Poverty History" as a slogan "lies exactly in the childishness of it being an undisputable, emotional statement".

Perhaps it is to do with my buttoned-up, lower-middle-class, Nonconformist background, but I feel uncomfortable with these collective displays of emotion and with the coverage of them. Nor was I cheered by the little corners of scepticism in the papers, where the worldly-wise insisted that African poverty was all the fault of corrupt, dusky dictators.

What I longed for were some challenging questions about what we ourselves can do. Not Bush and Blair, but me, you and your aunt in Frinton. Will we pay higher taxes so that Africa gets more aid? Will we ban arms exports? If we stop subsidising our farmers, will newspapers promise not to emote about "the death of the countryside"?

Will we tolerate dearer food? Will we let African countries add value to their primary products by turning them into manufactured goods and thereby undermining our own industries? Will we accept poverty as sufficient reason for an African to seek asylum here? Will we give a dying African child free treatment on the NHS even if it means waiting longer to have our verrucas seen to? Will we stop poaching doctors and nurses from Africa?

These questions could usefully have been put to many of those attending the Hyde Park concert or watching it on TV. No doubt they are childish questions and the answer to them (as to most questions that children ask) is "no". But if the press makes so much of what Stothard calls childish, emotional statements, it should surely ask the appropriate questions.

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