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Beware the bicycle shed

Posted by Richard Friday, July 08, 2005

Not for the first time – but probably in common with many of our readers – I am struggling to make sense of recent events, and am finding it difficult to marshal my thoughts into a coherent order.

Somewhere in the kaleidoscope is the observation that, possibly for the first time in its history, The Daily Telegraph carried less news on its front page than The Sun. Both carried full-page photographs illustrating aspects of yesterday's carnage, but The Sun also carried a short paragraph of text. Presumably the editorial staff of The Telegraph thought their readers were not up to the task of actually looking at words, and we were treated to a full colour photograph adorned only by a headline.

It would be churlish, however, to argue with the editorial judgement which dictated that virtually the whole newspaper should be turned over to the events in London, except that it should go on record that it was page 26 before the paper thought fit to print anything else, and then one of the three stories – and the larger of the three – was on the Chanel fashion house.

This would not be so bad if saturation coverage was the rare exception but, by a curious combination of circumstances, we have been treated to just such coverage for the best part of a week, with Live8 followed by the Olympics followed by this dreadful bombing.

What in the population is so often derided – the phenomenon of the "single issue group" - is now becoming the province of the media which now, it seems, are able only to concentrate on one issue at a time, and then to "do it to death" in a way that readers tire quickly of the coverage, whence the media drop the issue as fast as they espoused it, never to follow through.

It is not wholly untoward, therefore, to suggest that The Telegraph editors, and media people in general, read the column written by Patrick Bishop, headed: "Remember that normality is the only civilised response to terror".

Bishop advances the sad but obvious thesis that yesterday proved that the security services are unable to defend the public, all along Baldwin's line that "the bomber will always get through". But he then offers the realistic and in a way uplifting observation that, "The dead will be buried, the injured will heal and life will go on," but adding the caution that: "Normality is the only civilised response to terror. That is something that the terrorists will never understand. That is why they will strike again."

Most certainly, they will strike again – although not necessarily in London as their next target, but the words to emphasise are: "life will go on". Life must go on, as near normal as possible, and that injunction must also apply to the media, who are in great danger of losing the plot.

In his book, Northcote-Parkinson – he of Parkinson's Law – wrote of a scenario where a planning committee in a small rural authority was presented with two items on its agenda – a nuclear power station and a bicycle shed. Because members were all familiar with the latter and knew nothing of the former, virtually the whole session was spend on animated discussion of the shed and, in the last few remaining moments of the session, the nuclear power station was passed "on the nod".

Without being too critical of today's coverage, therefore – as the events were truly exceptional (one hopes) - we must be conscious of the danger of a "single issue media" which spends so much time on headline issues that it ignores the more mundane events – many of which have greater long-term impact on our lives. The danger is that while the the media are focusing on their versions of the "bicycle shed", the "nuclear power stations" are going though without notice.

It would be comforting – but also self-deluding – to say that this is where the Blogs come in, except that, even collectively, our readership is still minuscule. On what was a good day, by recent experience, yesterday we took 1,700 hits. The BBC website took 1.7 million. Others of the MSM took similar numbers.

On that basis, it is still vital that the media remain focused, because – whether they recognise it or not - life does go on. While they indulge in an orgy of introspection, absorbed in those issues which they find so fascinating, a lot else is happening. Perhaps, unlikely though it may be, we should hope that some media moguls would have the sense to pin this warning on their office walls: "Beware the bicycle shed".