Go on, wind us up

People often claim they want cooler and more factual newspapers, but that is nonsense. What they rea

The Daily Mail brought news of Victor Abrahams, a property manager aged 67 who was served with a £100 penalty ticket for parking his car in a side street in Barnet, north London, with a For Sale sign in its window. He was accused of "offering goods for sale in a public place", an offence under a 1984 Act designed to discourage unauthorised street markets.

Meanwhile, the Daily Telegraph had the story of the Terry twins, Connor and Brad, who live in Kent and are due to start primary school this autumn. Because of a shortage of places, Medway Council has assigned the boys to separate schools, 15 minutes apart. Their mother, Samantha, said: "I was horrified when I was told it was not a mistake. I cannot consider the consequences of separating the twins at such a tender age."

Does this sort of thing make you cross? I mean, what is the world coming to? Abrahams was doing something perfectly harmless that millions of other people have done before him, and he has been fined £100 for it! As for the Terry twins, what sort of brainless, heartless bureaucrat is capable of that? You have to wonder how these people can sleep at night.

Medway Council even had the gall to say that it was only obeying the law, and that if it had known the boys were twins the outcome would have been no different. Doesn't that just make you want to kick something?

Editors love stories like these because they wind the readers up and, however perverse this may appear, an angry reader is a happy reader.

The Telegraph's political pages are full of wind-ups at the moment, with every second headline announcing some new outrage by Gordon Brown's government. And when it is not outrage, it is glee: "Labour's big donors deserting over Brown", "Labour is losing the trust of voters on the NHS", "Harman blamed for Labour's devastating poll defeat". (In my edition it was actually "devasting", but we know what they meant.)

Below the headlines, the delivery is so packed with loaded language and excited indignation that it must be draining even for the Tory reader to consume. Meanwhile, the middle pages amplify the effects, with columnists competing to articulate the fury and contempt of the readers, just in case the readers can't express those feelings for themselves.

I am not complaining about this, for I am in no position to. I worked at the Independent on Sunday in the John Major years and we did much the same, revelling in the horror of it all. Afterwards, I even wrote a book about the 1997 election, which one reviewer described, fairly accurately, as "an orgy of Schadenfreude".

My point is that news is about emotion as much as fact, and this is much more than just a matter of engagement with one party or other (though that is important). Every day, papers want their readers to become cross or sad or happy, and they pick and print stories which will make them so.

Bureaucratic idiocies like the fining of Victor Abrahams and the separation of the Terry twins are, in that context, heaven-sent. Instances of excess in political correctness and the health and safety culture are just as welcome, as are the supposed iniquities of the European Union. Death and tragedy, when the circumstances are right, are milked to the point of sentiment and bad taste - witness the case of Corporal Sarah Bryant in Afghanistan.

Editors do this because they know from experience that if people feel outrage or anguish when reading their paper, or better still, if they are given something to rant about as they go about their daily business, then there is a better chance they will come back for more the next day. The idea, often expressed, that people would prefer their papers to be cooler, more objective and more factual is probably nonsense.

A distant thunder

We had a glimpse of a cool, objective and factual newspaper recently in the historic facsimile pages published as part of the promotion for the Times's magnificent (and free, for the time being) online archive.

Even if you knew that in 1963 the paper still gave over its front page entirely to classified ads, it was bracing to discover that on 9 August that year, the sensation of the day, the Great Train Robbery, was withheld from readers until page eight.

And this was the opening paragraph they read: "Suggestions for tightening up Post Office security were discussed by Mr Bevins, the Postmaster General, yesterday after the overnight Scotland to London Post Office express had been ambushed in Buckinghamshire." Steady, boys.

But of course

Logic à la Bruce Anderson, writing in the Independent: "Andy Burnham was at Cambridge. He cannot be thick."

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 07 July 2008 issue of the New Statesman, British childhood