x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Celebrity glitz? Why The Observer cannot be serious

In Tom Stoppard's play Night and Day, a bright-eyed young reporter, Jacob Milne, says people think "rubbish journalism is produced by men of discrimination who are vaguely ashamed of truckling to the lowest taste".

In Tom Stoppard's play Night and Day, a bright-eyed young reporter, Jacob Milne, says people think "rubbish journalism is produced by men of discrimination who are vaguely ashamed of truckling to the lowest taste". The reality, he insists, is different: "It's produced by people doing their best work. Proud of their expertise with a limited number of cheap devices to put a shine on the ****."

These lines come back to me often, and they did so again six days ago as I read my favourite British newspaper, The Observer. What I found caused me to be profoundly grateful that the men in suits - and at least one woman - who run the parent group, also the publishers of my second favourite British newspaper, The Guardian, had described speculation about the possible closure of The Observer as inaccurate.

I was grateful for the assurance as far as it went, though this did not seem to be very far. I was doubly grateful, when reading the paper, because I came across an item that was so crass, and so undeserving of space in a serious publication, that I would have been obliged to abandon plans to campaign for readers to boycott The Guardian if its management did decide to kill off The Observer. Beneath the headline "Cole glows on Cowell's big night", and a glitzy photograph, the report began: "Pop star Cheryl Cole dazzled partygoers as she arrived for music and TV mogul Simon Cowell's lavish 50th birthday party at Wrotham Park in Hertfordshire last night, writes James Orr."

It is difficult to know where to start. There are two examples of that appalling tabloid device, now favoured by a majority of publications, of placing descriptive adjectives and nouns before a name without trace of definite or indefinite article: "pop star Cheryl Cole" and, hideously, "music and TV mogul Simon Cowell". Whether she likes it or not, Mrs Cole "dazzles" other guests. The party is "lavish", though we are not told whether The Observer was invited.

In fact, I do know where to start. The saddest words in the article, which might have been lifted in its entirety from the most breathless of tabloids, were the last three: "writes James Orr". I checked the date on the page and there was no reference to April 1. So was this Mr Orr doing his best work, proud of his expertise with a limited number of devices? If so, it would imply that he is perhaps a "shifting" reporter, one who works at whichever newspaper office will have him but finds that he is most in demand by tabloid daily and Sunday newspapers. Or did he present his report in a recognisably broadsheet English style, only to have it reduced to excruciating drivel by a grizzled sub-editor who would feel more at home at The Sun or the Daily Star?

Now I would not dream of damning an entire edition of the world's oldest Sunday newspaper on the basis of one departure from the quality of presentation with which it is normally associated. Nor do I deny the importance editors feel they must these days attach to celebrities. In modern Britain, Mrs Cole and Mr Cowell are difficult to ignore. Even less would I judge Mr Orr on a single example of his work. For all I know, his next assignment will take him to a war or famine zone.

But amid all that was good, intelligent and thought-provoking in last week's Observer, it was an item that made me think of another classic line from Stoppard's play, spoken by the expat industrialist's wife after listening to Milne's impassioned speech in favour of the freedom of the press: "I'm with you on the free press. It's the newspapers I can't stand." Colin Randall in a contributing editor to The National and may be contacted at crandall@thenational.ae