While looking through the materials, I came across something by Forman that, for me, perfectly sums up why so many of us are committed to CPD today.
In a message to other members of the IPR, Forman wrote:
It is only by the give and take of ideas that progress towards real efficiency can be made. I am sure that willingness to learn is the mark of any good PRO, as self-satisfaction is the mark of a bad one.
One of the best known definitions of news is that when a dog bites a man, that is not news because it happens so often. But when a man bites a dog, that is news.
It is a great quote; it’s memorable and concisely gets across the essence of what gives something news value.
I had always thought it was from Daily Mail founder Lord Northcliffe, but it seems he may not have been the author of it after all.
While reading Hamilton Fyfe’s history of the British newspaper industry, Sixty Years of Fleet Street, recently, I came across a passage about it. Fyfe suggests that, while Northcliffe often used it, it was actually Charles Dana, the American newspaper editor, who said it first.
Northcliffe was very fond of that ancient yarn about the nature of news and the definition given by Charles Dana, a famous American editor: “If a dawg bites a man, that isn’t noos. If a man bites a dawg, that is.” Dana meant that ordinary everyday occurrences were not worth notice; it was the unusual, the exceptional, that the public cared to hear about.
Whoever came up with it, it has stuck. Not only is it regularly used to explain what news is, but it has also inspired a film and a PR agency.
It also means that any time a man does actually bite a dog, it is a story journalists can hardly disguise their glee at getting the chance to cover.
But the earliest example I’ve found is about a man in London who bit an Alsatian in 1970. “I had no intention of hurting the dog,” said the man during the ensuing court case. “It was just an issue between me and him. He bit me, so I bit him back.”
I have just finished reading Sixty Years of Fleet Street by Hamilton Fyfe, a history of British journalism from the late 1800s to just after the Second World War.
It is brilliant, packed with anecdotes from someone who himself played a significant role in newspaper history, rescuing the Daily Mirror after its disastrous launch in 1903 and later writing the infamous report about the Allied retreat from Mons in 1914.
The bit that stood out most is how Fyfe was left with a rather bleak view of newspaper readers and about the apparent lack of enthusiasm with which they were consumed.
Newspaper reading has become a habit. It is like drug-taking or cigarette-smoking, not caused so much by the pleasure of indulgence in it as by the discomfort of abstention from it. Millions of men and women read newspapers, not for information, but to pass the time, to prevent thinking, to escape from the pressure of boredom or bad luck.
Few people take a real interest in news of any kind. They like a murder case, but would as soon read one of 20 years ago as that of yesterday. They are fond of gossip about film stars, but do not much care whether it is true or not. They enjoy being shown that aristocrats are a poor lot, vicious and idle, but are equally ready next day to believe them hard-working, self-sacrificing, patriotic men and women.
So was he right? Whatever you think, it seems a very depressing view to hold at the end of a long and distinguished career.
So was he right? Well, maybe, but it is certainly a depressing view take at the end of a long and distinguished career.
He added to this with a concern about the effect that increasing pressure on news resources was having on the ability of newspapers to proactively seek out news.
“Staff reporters are less and less in evidence,” he wrote, adding that “we have almost gone back to the antiquated method of sitting and waiting for stuff to be sent in.”
It is a lament that many people working in the media today will relate to all too easily.
At least, though, Fyfe held real hope for the future.
When the book was published in 1949, newspapers were still coming to terms with the rise of radio news. Counter intuitively, given that it offered people another way of getting news, Fyfe saw the radio as a good thing for the newspaper industry.
He envisaged a future where there would be a greater number of newspapers with smaller circulations and he believed this would result in better quality journalism. “Far better that 2 million people should support 20 papers with circulations of some 100,000 apiece than pay their 2 million pennies to one,” he wrote.
“Journalists are most of them agreed that the defects pointed out in the Report [of the Royal Commission of the Press in 1949] would tend to disappear if there were a larger number of newspapers with moderate circulations, appealing to different classes of reader and representing different points of view, instead of a very small number with enormous circulations,” he added.
“The Press will then be in the hands of men and women with a sense of responsibility to those whom they serve, admitting an obligation to give of their best and to aim high… The papers they produce… may have more to read in them and will certainly contain more mental nourishment.”
When Fyfe wrote this, he was thinking about what Fleet Street might look like 60 years into the future, which takes us up to 2009. And, as almost always happens with predictions for over half a century hence, he got it wrong. While the days of two newspapers (the Daily Mirror and the Daily Express) selling 4 million copies per day may have been gone forever, this is because overall newspaper circulation has gone down rather than because of a more level playing field.
But as wrong as he may have been about the future of the newspaper industry, doesn’t his prediction feel a bit more right when you think about the media as a whole? Isn’t there something about his vision of much more diverse media and of closer relationships between writing staff and readerships that hints, however vaguely, at the kind of journalism the internet is now in the process of creating?
When Paul Dacre defended the Daily Mail’s widely criticised article about Ralph Miliband in a comment piece for the Guardian last month, one aspect of his response that went unremarked was his description of the Daily Mail’s readers.
Those who read his newspaper are, he suggested, “ordinary people who are… too often ignored by today’s ruling elite”. He went on to say they have mostly unfulfilled dreams of a decent education and a health service they can trust; are suspicious of the state; and are “decent working Britons” who are “the backbone of this country” but are often subjected to an “unpleasant intellectual snobbery” from the left.
There is nothing surprising about that. It is what you would expect him to say.
But the picture he paints of Daily Mail readers as having modest hopes and dreams and being the victims of snobbery is very different to the way they were seen by Lord Northcliffe, the man who founded the Daily Mail in 1896.
Far from having modest hopes and dreams, Northcliffe thought Daily Mail’s readers were highly aspirational and, rather than being the victims of snobbery, might even be guilty of it themselves.
In his biography of Northcliffe, Tom Clarke tells the story of him giving an insight into his view of his readers while entertaining a group of journalists at a villa near Monte Carlo.
He asked the assembled journalists whether they realised Daily Mail readers had incomes of £1,000 per year (then a lot of money).
“Do you really mean that, Chief?” one of the journalists asked.
Northcliffe looked angry at being challenged, but then a smile formed on his face.
“Well, my boy,” he said, “they like to imagine themselves £1,000-a-year people and they certainly prefer reading the news and doings of £1,000-a-year people. That’s why I’ve brought you boys here, to learn how your readers live, or would like to live; so that you’ll know how to report things to their liking.”
“Well, that just sounds like reporting just for snobs,” one of the reporters replied.
“There are worst vices than snobbery,” said Northcliffe, sharply.
“Yes, Chief,” the reporter said, “but are we to forget the Man in the Street in our news?”
“Who is this man in the street?” Northcliffe asked. “He’s tomorrow’s £1,000-a-year man. So he hopes – and thinks. He likes reading news about people who have succeeded. He sees himself as one of them eventually and he’s flattered.”
“So we are to flatter our readers?” asked the reporter.
“What else have we ever done?” Northcliffe said. “And what’s wrong with that? Read Disraeli on flattery of royalty. If kings like it, why not the ordinary man? Our papers have flattered him all along by putting reading matter in his reach when pompous academic folk who taught him to read had forgotten to provide it. They created a demand and offered nothing to satisfy it. We did. We let the man in the street realise he was someone who mattered. That flattered him and won for us his admiration and support. Cynical? Not at all! We helped him to have hope and confidence; gave him something to aim at and strive for.”
The journalist Hamilton Fyfe, who worked for Northcliffe as a reporter for the Daily Mail and the editor for the Daily Mirror, also touched on the press baron’s view of the psychology of newspaper readers in his book, Sixty Years of Fleet Street.
Referring to Northcliffe’s concern that the Daily Mirror’s content was too focused on appealing to “cabmen”, Fyfe wrote: “He was firmly persuaded that newspaper readers were pleased if they thought they were reading something prepared for a class above their own.”
The contrast between Northcliffe’s and Dacre’s views of their readers is interesting, particularly as they are considered to be among the very best in newspaper history at understanding how to appeal to their readership.
But any difference in their approach may have as much to do with the people they are/were trying to appeal to as about any fundamental difference in outlook. While the Daily Mail has maintained its campaigning style and its willingness to take controversial positions over the last century, its readership has changed.
When the Prime Minister, Lord Salisbury, said in the late nineteenth century that the Daily Mail was produced “by office boys for office boys”, he meant it disparagingly. But his insult nevertheless captured the essence of irreverence and ambition that made it successful. These days, some three quarters of its readers are over 45 and so it would hardly be surprising if they were less aspirational.
Also, whatever their differences in approach, there is one thing Dacre and Northcliffe have absolutely in common: a sense of personal identify with their readers.
When Dacre was asked at the Leveson Inquiry whether he empathised with his readers’ fears and prejudices, he replied that he hoped so, before adding that “’anxieties’ rather than ‘prejudices’, is the word I’d use”.
Northcliffe was less reticent about using the word. When on that same balmy evening in the South of France, one of the journalists was bold enough to suggest that the Daily Mail reflected the prejudices of its readers, Northcliffe’s response was typically forthright.
“Prejudices?” he asked. “Well, most of the ordinary man’s prejudices are my prejudices – if you want to call them that – and are therefore the prejudices of my newspapers.”