A Rule Written in Sepia - Nostalgia Sells Newspapers ; Spurred on by Starkey and Schama, Editors Know That History, Suitably Sexed Up, Is Highly Fashionable Now

Article excerpt

I wonder how much the saturation coverage, in both the press and the broadcast media, of the 60th anniversary of D-Day reflects the interests of the public. We hear much, during the intrusive revelations of the private lives of celebrities and royals, about the difference between public interest and the interest of the public, or between what is important and what fascinates. D-Day plus 60 is hard to categorise.

The mythical visitor from Mars, dropping in for a snapshot of Britain over the past week, would identify a nation obsessed with well past triumphs, a tennis player who had never won a major title, a tacky television show called Big Brother and hints that there might be some important elections coming up. But the Martian's overwhelming impression would have been of the first of those, and it would strike her as just the same as stories her grandfather told her about a visit he paid to Britain many, many years ago.

The generation born very soon after the Second World War ended, of which I am one, is approaching the same age as D-Day, and our awareness of the war is built on growing up in its aftermath with parents and relations for whom it was reality. Opinion polls show enormous ignorance of the war, and D-Day in particular, among today's teenagers and many older than them. But when I read those figures I think about being a teenager in the '60s and wonder how I would have impressed with my knowledge of a war fought 60 or so years earlier, like the Boer war. Not much, I imagine.

Newspaper editors are not a sentimental bunch. Their contentment, and their futures, depend on figures on balance sheets, and they pride themselves on understanding their readers and knowing what they want. The collective judgement of these editors is that vast coverage of the D-Day anniversary will sell newspapers. This is particularly true of the editors of the Daily Mirror (which actually doesn't have one), the Daily Mail, and The Daily Telegraph. Just as the judgement of the editors of The Sun, Mirror and Daily Star is that pages on the washed-up losers of Big Brother will boost their declining circulations.

But these are contrasting judgements. So what is it all about? An upmarket view would be that newspapers are about educating as well as informing and entertaining, that editors, who do not consistently keep this role at the front of their minds, see it as an opportunity to teach the under- informed about the triumphs of 60 years ago. They know that history, suitably dramatised and sexed up by Starkey or Schama, is rather fashionable just now. The regional press has long known that nostalgia sells and all the best local papers have their "sepia" pages. D-Day plus 60 has been just as big in the locals as the nationals. Travelling around over the past week I have read D-Day pages, essentially interviews with veterans who were there, in The Journal, Newcastle, the Lancaster Guardian, and the Manchester Evening News.

The Daily Mail has always traded on its version of nostalgia, "think pieces" on how things continue to get worse, from children's behaviour to trains, from respect for elders to education, from local services to godliness. …