Magazine article The Spectator

The Newspapers Vastly Overdid Their Coverage of the Pope, Even If He Was a Celebrity

Magazine article The Spectator

The Newspapers Vastly Overdid Their Coverage of the Pope, Even If He Was a Celebrity

Article excerpt

My fingers poised above the keyboard, I was about to start this column in the lazy way columnists sometimes do: 'Am I alone in thinking. . . ?' But the question is disingenuous. In the opinion that follows I am not alone, and had I really thought that I was, then the opinion would hardly be worth a whole column in The Spectator. In fact I have yet to meet anyone who disagrees. Even a Polish Catholic friend has just expressed the same thought to me.

I think the British media - press and broadcasting - enormously overdid the coverage of the death of Pope John Paul II. We did so not out of any new respect for the Roman Catholic faith or any serious interest in the late Pope's contribution to it, but out of a mixture of mawkish mob-sentimentality and the timidity with which everyone in Fleet Street looks over their shoulder before deciding what is to be the big story.

I must anticipate and answer an obvious riposte. I am not (you may note) a Catholic. I do not believe in God. Further, I doubt whether the late Pope's influence has been on balance good for humanity or even for his own Church. You are therefore entitled to ask whether my dislike of this tremendous media hoop-la about a dying pope was born of pique that others should think more highly of his papacy than I do.

You would be wrong, however. Much that occupies the news may not interest us, but still we understand that papers and broadcasts are not designed for us alone. Without ever wanting to read the sporting sections of newspapers myself, I accept that many others do. Without being much of a monarchist myself, I know that huge numbers of my countrymen are. I took no interest at all in the second marriage of the Prince of Wales, but editors were right last week to devote to this the huge coverage it received, because millions of readers, listeners and viewers found it absorbing.

My puzzlement at the saturation coverage of the Pope's last illness, his death and his funeral is born of something simpler than opinions of my own about the late John Paul. I don't think the British public were that interested. I don't think most people read much of it. I don't think editors stopped to ask themselves whom all these acres of newsprint were for. Until a couple of weeks ago I doubt that a majority of my fellow Britons would have been able to quote the Pope's full name: John Paul II.

The news media are at the same time at the hard edge of what we think of as modernity, and strangely amateurish and unbusinesslike in our own trading strategies. We offer you frequent (and costly) polls on the relative popularity of the rival political parties, while conducting much less research into whether you want to read them. We subject the marketing skills of politicians and public corporations to severe scrutiny, while viewing our own customer-base with a strange vagueness. In current affairs it is not quite second nature to a newspaperman or broadcaster to ask himself what his audience wants to hear about; or, rather, in order to answer that question he seldom consults the source, the customer, but instead glances sideways at other newspapers, other broadcasters, to see what they are posting at the top of their news priorities.

Extended coverage of a pontiffs death, across many pages of papers and many hours of broadcasting, in a country where only a minority are serious Christians and only a minority of serious Christians are Roman Catholics, would seem to be an obvious candidate for in-house research by individual organs of the media, and also research across the media as a whole. …

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