I write this as we emerge blinking from the events of the past week, a week marked by two articles that have reached depths of cruelty that are reminiscent of the dark days of the Evil Empire of the Red Tops. Yes, we’ve seen the demise of kiss and tells, but these were a brief echo of those snarling pack of hounds, unleashed with the intent of savaging their quarry in the blind pursuit of clickbait. Titillating chicanery? Perhaps. Sensationalist trickery moulded to energise a conversation.
Firstly, they forced a beloved athlete into an impossible corner by exposing a chronic disease. The ex-Lions captain and the first openly gay rugby player recorded his emotional response, and channelled it via other media underlined his trauma seeing the story outed in such a cruel way. And secondly, the Ashes hero who should be basking in the glory of the sporting comeback of the summer, found himself suddenly drafting an online statement to push back at a shameful story raking up painful memories from decades ago.
Both were moves that were only ever going to be met with revulsion with civilians, in this new age, who are no longer happy to sedately feast on this unappetising fayre. I’m sure there was fierce debate inside the newsroom about the need to push through with both stories, but the decision was made to get them out no matter the cost.
So why was it done?
The headline is everything, it is the cash cow. Engineered and crafted to grab your attention when you least expect it and then entice you to spread it far and wide in spectacular viral fashion. This was click-bait on crack cocaine, and the layers of controversy resulted in people reading the article, spreading the outrage and the original sin. Ban the Sun hashtags are distant, avoidable things compared to the adrenaline rush that that kind of traffic does to visit statistics – all of which can be fed back into presentations justifying lucrative online advertising contracts.
Secondly, there is something more nebulous and distant. Like an angry drumbeat across the news agenda. Driving up the fury and division in the comments section and the desperation to change the channel at all costs. It’s Brexit. How does a showbiz or sports journalist stand a chance of getting on the front page when events are so relentlessly historic?
A scandal that would normally guarantee a frontpage is now shoved off by the latest number 10 press disaster or the latest speaker’s office stunt. All that rage combined with that inability to shift the agenda has resulted in a combination of anger and desperation in newsrooms that has sown the seeds of this kind of low-blow, shock and awe attack-journalism. I hope it doesn’t last and I hope that we return to standards of charm, integrity and respect.