The most memorable newspaper headline I ever saw was in England 50 years ago to this month. It surprised me − shocked me, I suppose. It told me a lot about the nature of the press and raised deep questions about its purpose.

In 1971, I toured through Mozambique on my motorbike, blissfully unaware of the civil war around me, a war between the Portuguese colonial army and the liberation forces of FRELIMO. In 1972, I left South Africa for England, but still spent a lot of time thinking about southern Africa. In April 1974, I woke up early one morning in my bedsit in Coventry and turned on my radio. Momentous news! There had been a revolution in Lisbon! It was described as a ‘coup by left-leaning military officers’.

The despots who had ruled Portugal for over 40 years had been overthrown. This surely would lead to the end of Portuguese colonisation in Africa and the liberation of Angola and Mozambique. (It did.) I was terribly excited and ran downstairs to get the nearest newspaper to read all about it. Across the road was a newspaper vendor with a big pile of papers and a large poster bearing this headline: ‘Liz and Dick to Divorce.’

I should explain to younger readers that this was a reference to two players of stage and screen, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, who went through a rather complicated series of marriages and divorces together, among other things.

The newspaper editors obviously thought its readers would be more interested in film stars getting divorced than the ending of four centuries of Portuguese imperialism in Africa, or indeed than in anything else in Africa. No doubt they were right. Today the best-selling newspaper in Britain is the Daily Mail, which specialises in famous scandals and semi-naked celebrities: female newsreaders ‘frolicking’ on the beach in tiny bikinis, what Meghan said to William, Kim Kardashian’s bum, the ‘Riotous Life of Lady Cobbold’, that sort of thing.

News for free

Last Monday, the Daily Maverick shut down for the day to ‘illustrate a market failure in journalism’. I regret to say I didn’t notice it, and I fear a lot of other people might not have noticed it either. This is rather ominous for the DM. Like many other people, I suppose, I scan through the web every day looking for the news for free, not really noticing where it comes from. I only actively seek out journalists whose writing I admire (not many) and would only ever pay to read news that particularly interested me. I should be happy to subscribe to a paper or magazine that was well written, interesting, informative and, above all, allowed all points of view. I can think of none in South Africa, including the DM, and few anywhere else.

The Daily Maverick was complaining that many people read it but few pay for it. It does not have a paywall and asks for voluntary payment, which it seldom gets. In the UK, the Guardian, which is almost identical to the DM in thought and content, complains about the same thing. The DM says newspapers in South Africa are shrinking, losing staff, skills and experience, and there are fewer and fewer full-time journalists. This is true not just for South Africa but for other countries. It says that without good reporting there is a danger that people will not be aware of important trends and events happening around them, often affecting them badly, as in the case of corruption. 

What is the purpose of a newspaper? To inform? To entertain? To educate? To promote a point of view or ideology or vested interest? To spread propaganda for a political party or grouping? To make as much money as it can? To preach? In the past, all newspapers were on paper, and made money by sales and advertisements. Today the electronic media have wiped out most of that revenue. The Daily Mail makes its money by entertainment, and fairly tawdry entertainment at that. So if you start up a newspaper to make money, go in for sex and sensational gossip.

Very good investigative articles

Actually, the Daily Mail does occasionally carry very good investigative articles. Perhaps its editors might claim that they have breasts, bums and royal celebrities on the front page to lure the masses inside, where they might read improving articles. The key word in the previous sentence is ‘occasionally’.

If the purpose of a newspaper is to inform, whom should it be informing and about what? Should it be informing readers on what they want to know or on what the editors want them to know? The last great newspaper success in South Africa was the Daily Sun, launched in 2002, which immediately became the best-selling daily newspaper in the country. It aimed at the biggest group of people here, the black working classes. It wrote about witchcraft, murder in the townships, tsotsis, sexual scandals, the murky goings-on of foreigners, and other local happenings of concern to ordinary people.

There was a howl of outrage from high-minded newspapers that it was stealing their readers by catering to their lowest instincts. The founding editor, Deon du Plessis, replied – correctly – that he was giving them what interested them rather than what some superior person thought should interest them. And I have to say that the Daily Sun often reported awful truths that the superior newspapers ignored. For example, in 2016, a young black man was found lying at the roadside, writhing and screaming in agony. Both his eyes and testicles had been torn out. A black suspect was caught, arrested, tried and convicted. None of the high-minded mainstream newspapers deigned to report or comment on this case. The Daily Sun did. It described how the police had entered the room of the suspect and found the ‘fresh balls’ of his victim in the fridge. In that same year, when a white estate agent, Penny Sparrow, compared black people on the beach with ‘cute little wild monkeys’, the high-minded newspapers went ballistic, reporting the matter in great detail, thundering against this evil woman in endless editorials.

Divided on class

I think the ‘Liz and Dick’ newspaper at the beginning of this article was the Daily Mirror. In England, newspapers, like so much else, are divided on class. The tabloids (with a smaller page size), such as the Daily Mirror, Daily Express and Sun, serve the working classes; the broadsheets or quality papers, such as the Times, the Guardian and the Daily Telegraph, serve the middle class. Perhaps, on that day, the quality newspapers did have headlines about the Portuguese revolution, thinking their superior readers might be interested in it, whereas the tabloids knew their inferior readers would not.

Similarly in South Africa, the high-minded publications such as The Star, Business Day and the Daily Maverick knew their readers would be more outraged by a white woman comparing blacks with monkeys than they would by a black man having his eyes and testicles ripped out. The Daily Sun knew its working-class readers would think the opposite. (In South Africa, as survey after survey shows, the upper classes, black and white, are obsessed with white racism, whereas the black working classes are not. They have real things to worry about.)

I wonder what the purpose of the Daily Maverick is. When it started up with that name, I thought it might be quirky and original, daring to be different. I even heard it might support capitalism. Shock! Horror! But actually it couldn’t be more conventional. It would better be called ‘The Daily Orthodoxy’. It has exactly the same views on almost everything as the Mail and Guardian here and the Guardian, the New York Times, the Washington Post, Bloomberg, the BBC and CNN overseas. On every important issue of our times, it says exactly the same things as they do, sometimes using the same words. On the anti-science nonsense of climate hysteria, it repeats all their rubbish. It even has a silly section called ‘Our Burning Planet’. (Global temperatures now are lower than they have been for most of the pre-industrial era, that is, the 9,000 years before 1700 AD, when industrialisation began.) It chanted in unison with the others all the claptrap about Covid vaccines. When Pfizer was forced to release its extensive data showing how dangerous its own Covid vaccines were, there was not a peep from these mainstream media, including the DM (as far as I know). In fact, all of these media not only promote the same point of view but will censor anybody suggesting a different point of view. They don’t like debate or critical thought. They like belief in whatever is the ruling class fashion, and they hate anyone who questions it. If you wrote to any of them with a mountain of data and scientific study showing that rising CO2 is not causing climate change, they would refuse to publish your letter or article.

Silent on political liberty

In 1946, George Orwell wrote an essay called, ‘The Prevention of Literature’. He had attended a meeting of the PEN Club (a worldwide association of writers), which discussed freedom of the press. There were four distinguished speakers. Every one of them was silent on political liberty and free speech, and all of them in one way or another praised the Soviet Union and didn’t want its purges to be discussed or its crimes to be reported.

(Most of the ruling class elite in Britain and the USA at the time thought Lenin and Stalin were wonderful. Walter Durante of the New York Times raved about Stalin’s fine qualities.) The speakers thought only one point of view on Communist Russia should be allowed and all others banned. In other words, the meeting to discuss press freedom was actually a meeting to enforce censorship. The reasons they gave for denying free speech sound familiar today. Orwell was a socialist all his life, but he had seen the horrors of communism at close quarters and heard its lies being faithfully transmitted by a large section of the British media at the time.

He had immense difficulty in getting Animal Farm published. Today anybody telling the truth about climate science will not be published in any of the mainstream journals. Not only will the truth be banned but anybody asking questions about it will be vilified. When Michael Mann’s wretched Hockey Stick graph was published and brandished around the world (showing temperatures steady from 1000 to 1900 AD and then suddenly shooting up), anybody who asked how he got that crazy graph from the very dubious data he had used was shouted down. It was ‘right-wing’ to ask questions. You were a ‘denier’ if you asked for his computer codes. The true progressive must believe what he is told. More and more today, you hear that freedom of speech is right-wing.

The DM does have some excellent investigations into corruption and other malfeasance, for which it must be congratulated. This is important. But how should it be financed? I don’t know. Will its plea for readers to send it money work? I doubt it.

Particularly impressed

The only magazine I buy regularly is the Economist. It used to believe in free enterprise and science but no longer does. It repeats the climate nonsense like all the others, and seems to understand nothing about the physics of radiant heat transfer as it applies to greenhouse gases. (Mind you, scientific reporting in the media has always been abysmal, as so few journalists have any qualifications in science or engineering.) However, it does have a very wide coverage around the world. It writes about African and Asian countries that the rest of the media ignore. I was particularly impressed when, in its issue of 24 Jan 2024, under the heading, ‘Why African leaders are embracing Sudan’s worst villain’, it described President’s Ramaphosa’s warm welcome in Pretoria of Hemedti Dagalo, a racist genocidal killer, now plunging Sudan into a catastrophic civil war and wanting to complete the ethnic cleansing of black Africans. I didn’t see such reporting or views anywhere else in the media. The DM asks for wide coverage of local events, even in forgotten, out-of-the-way places. It is right to do so. But I suppose it will require more money to pay for this reporting, and who will provide it?

Samuel Johnson said that only fools wrote for anything except money. I don’t believe him. Somerset Maugham said that literature should be nothing but intelligent entertainment. I have sympathy with that. I like literature that makes me think, but only because thinking is fun. Passages from Conrad give me immense pleasure but I don’t know why. Some writing, probably most, is advocacy of one sort or another. My political and scientific thinking has been strongly influenced by books – more than by anything else. Should newspapers advocate a certain outlook? Should they preach? Most of them do, but that doesn’t mean we should look down our noses at those that don’t.

I like reading text on paper. I like to hold a book or unfold a newspaper. But, of course, I realise there are numerous advantages of electronic words and pictures, which the DM espouses. I wish it well despite my reservations − but I am not going to give it any money.

[Image: Bank Phrom on Unsplash]

The views of the writer are not necessarily the views of the Daily Friend or the IRR

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Andrew Kenny is a writer, an engineer and a classical liberal.