Media’s trail of blood along the rotten path to stardom

By James Inverne, May 31, 2013
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The actor had the spotlight. This was the moment, the moment he'd been rehearsing under his breath and in front of the mirror and at every chance he got. And he didn't want to screw it up. He faced his audience, and he began his oration.

The script wasn't brilliant, his delivery was strangely staccato but out it tumbled. It was the big scene where the murderer is revealed and dares the entire country to disregard his heinous, horrific act. "None of you are safe!" he stormed, hitting the line with all of his well-practised fury, belting it out front and centre.

But there was no applause, no standing ovation, not then and not at the evening's end. Partly because this had switched from street theatre to a television show. He had remembered to pause, to wait until the cameras were on him. They hadn't been turned on fast enough, so, "Film me!" he barked.

This was his moment. It was not to be ignored. He held his hands slightly out to his sides. They were crimson with blood, holding his weapons - not overplaying that, just making sure that the blood was noticed. Sometimes the best dramatic effects are understated.

'Oh come on,' he cajoled. 'It's only news…'

Yet this was no actor. How I wish it had been. This was no play, no street show. Not even one of those scare-you-silly experiences that have been popping up in our towns over the last few years. This was real life and the worst of it.

But I wonder whether that's wholly how our news media see it. Let me tell you a story. I was once hanging around the newsroom of one of this country's more respectable broadsheet newspapers, and the news editor wandered over and asked me if I'd write a piece about how a leading and very newsy figure in the arts world had lost his touch. The editor would give it a huge space, he continued.

"Er, but it's not really true," I replied, and proceeded to explain why the story was far more complex than he was suggesting - changing market conditions, changing times, that sort of thing. "Oh come on," he cajoled with a grin, "It's only news…"

That was the moment I realised something about the news media. It is all entertainment. It's all the "razzle dazzle", to borrow a phrase beloved of Billy Flynn, the crooked lawyer in Kander and Ebb's musical, Chicago. You ask why, as many Jews do, Israel gets so much disproportionate coverage, why it's held up as a flashpoint for the entire Middle East? Because that's a great story. It sells newspapers. Every magazine, every newspaper, every TV and radio programme needs what in the business are called the "hero products". The things that get you the widest audience the fastest.

For a football magazine that's Rooney, or Ronaldo. For a car mag, I suppose it's a Porsche or Ferrari. For wildlife programmes it's sharks. For gossip mags, its Will and Kate. For newspapers it's often Israel.

The barbaric attack on that poor soldier in Woolwich should never have been allowed to become theatre. But that's exactly what happened. "Film me!" cried the murderer. And film him they did, and then they broadcast the film. On ITV, on the BBC, everywhere. They made him a star. A villain, sure. But a star. A hero product. Because who among us could not watch? Who watched only once? The viewing figures must have been astronomical.

But why did he and his comrade-in-evil want to be filmed? Many of the great villains in history have had a complex about attention not being paid. How much were their dreadful ambitions fuelled by the notion of becoming famous?

Well, we did those guys proud in Woolwich. Nobody who saw it will ever forget that dreadful image of that raving lunatic with the red hands. It's branded upon my brain, up there with Pacino in The Godfather. Yeah, that guy's a star all right.

There are still many journalists in the job in order to do good for society. But the system - especially now when commercial media outlets are fighting for their lives and the subsidised BBC often follows their strident style rather than leads - doesn't encourage responsible reporting.

We've seen its lack when it comes to Israel, and experienced the disruptive consequences to the peace process. And now, though I fervently hope I'm wrong, perhaps some would-be young terrorist in England, ignored by the in-crowd and feeling the world owes him more, has seen what happened this time.

Maybe he wants his 15 minutes of fame. Maybe he knows just how to get it.

Last updated: 8:45am, May 31 2013