I had a text on Monday to warn me off the newsagents. The local paper was running a feature on my cousin, who died back in September, and it was on the front page. As it turned out the text, though appreciated, was unnecessary. I live just far enough away from the rest of my family that their local paper isn’t available here. Knowing that it had been published, though, I was able to sit in the privacy of my kitchen and look it up online.
Even with the forewarning, even with the relative distance, even with the knowledge that it had been written in conjunction with my family, it was an upsetting read. It wasn’t that any of it was wrong, exactly, just that it wasn’t right either. What was said, what was omitted, the implication and gloss painted a clear, but somehow unrecognisable picture. I’m not naive enough to believe everything I read in the papers, but reading this was a salutary lesson in just how much prejudice I bring to it nonetheless.
I suppose that the truth is that we neither read nor write in a vacuum. We may consciously challenge, but subconsciously we have a whole set of preconceptions through which we filter what we see. Reading about my own family, in a piece which was simultaneously sensitive and sensationalist, I was jolted by this doublethink: I know them as people, but the article showed them as recognisable ‘types’. Had I read it as a stranger, I would have mentally slotted both characters and stories into pigeonholes, carefully calibrated to tell me how much credence and sympathy to spare.
I wrote last week about Channel 4’s Benefits Street, and followed with interest both the comments on that piece and the furore which surrounded Monday’s Big Benefits Row on Channel 5. While the former did make some attempt at showing a rounded picture, the latter was unambiguously framed as entertainment, an orchestrated clash of personalities rather than politics which obscured far more than it clarified. Unedifying and distressing as it was for those personally involved, it’s questionable whether any of the millions viewing will have had their opinions seriously challenged. The stories, the types, have been repeated too often for any real change.
We can cope with nuance and the complications of character in those around us and those we love, but the truth is that we don’t really want to when it comes to consuming news and public affairs. We like the pantomime goodies and baddies: the easy binary division that tells us what to think. How else could we have programmes like BBC’s Saints and Scroungers, which may as well come with handy cards indicating when to boo and hiss? Why else would we sob in our millions through the modern-day hagiography of Pride of Britain and its ilk? ‘The artist who paints for the million must use glaring colours’ wrote Trollope – and the truth is, we are complicit in rejecting the dull magnolia which comes with accepting that people are complex and largely driven by circumstance.
All of which is fine, provided we understand what it is we are doing, and don’t make value judgements which affect people’s lives and well-being on a 2D cartoon version of the truth. Sometimes you don’t know even what you think you know.