Words, words, words and the good life

Many years ago a responsible figure in the world of Irish education had occasion to issue a strong but measured and carefully worded address on a controversial topic of the day. It was duly reported in a tabloid evening paper. But there was nothing measured or careful about the headline on the story. It went something like this: PROFESSOR SLAMS MINISTER AT CONGRESS.

The professor was amused but not entirely displeased with the attention his mild-mannered words received as a result. He reflected to me afterwards that he was happy to have been able to give The Herald an opportunity to use SLAM again, seemingly its favourite word.

That was then and that was a tabloid paper. Language like that was rarely found – in fact sub-editors would have been merciless with language like that – in what was once called “the quality press”. This is now and evidence of that kind of chronic intemperate language can be found in any number of news media in which we could formerly have hoped to be served with an account of what is happening in the world around us, couched in reasoned language without a topping of exaggerated emotions.

In little more than the space of a few days recently, we were served up the following by respectable news organisations:

– Government plans to reopen schools for pupils with special needs are in chaos amidst a backlash from teachers

– A row broke out over whether the UK had approved the vaccine first because of the freedoms created by Brexit

– Patel slams ‘do-gooding’ celebs for Windrush comparison

– European politicians have mocked Britain’s celebration of its status as the first nation to roll out a vaccine against coronavirus

– Ministers break pledge by slashing £1bn from rail budget

– a backlash from the right is brewing

And so it goes. What an unpleasant world they seem to want us to think we live – in which the only way we can relate to each other is through aggressive behaviour? 

OK, they are only words. Is it that important? Yes it is. Words and the way we use them are important. They both define and help refine our cultural life, our civilisation. They do so because they reflect in some way the virtues by which we conduct our lives – temperance, yes, but also our love of truth, justice and charity. Undermine those things in our culture and we are on a short road to a very bad place.

In the context of our current woes, it is also important. Many are beset with temptations to discouragement, despondency  and even despair. The negativity and pessimism generated by what has been too readily accepted as a media principle of operation, that good news is no news, is simply destructive of the inner peace now in such short supply.

Underlining this, a  cri de coeur  went out recently from Janet Daley writing in The Daily Telegraph complaining that the excessive use of distressing films from the frontline is terrifying already frightened people.

“I had to turn off the television news half a dozen times last week”, she wrote, adding, “which, for a journalist who is obliged to stay on top of events, is quite something. I took this uncharacteristic step because I could not bear to watch, over and over again, the same film reports of appalling distress from hospital intensive care wards, some of them featuring interviews with patients who died after being filmed.

“Presumably, the managers of broadcast news believe that this intrusive, emotionally manipulative programming is serving the national interest. By displaying the reality of the Covid epidemic and its consequences for the NHS, they are convincing those who doubt the seriousness of the situation – or who treat lockdown restrictions with contempt – that they are being criminally irresponsible.

“I am sorry to have to tell all of you who are doing this in good conscience – the producers and the film crews, touring hospitals to make sensational film packages from the front line, perhaps with the encouragement of Government ministers – that the delinquents who organise illegal raves and the indifferent who host big parties ARE NOT WATCHING. They detached themselves long ago from this phenomenon which, for various reasons, they feel has nothing to do with them.”

Every journalist’s perennial ethical challenge is not to succumb to the temptation to gild the lilies in their stories to grab more attention or to steal a march on rival media; not to use the fig leaf of the public’s right to know as a pretext for sensationalising what the public has a right to be informed of; not to shock on the doubtful pretext that shock is needed to get attention. That way lies a kind of addiction to sensation and all addictions are paths to a place beyond reality. If our media take us there they are perpetrating a betrayal of trust beyond falsehood.

Can we not think a little more about virtue? The four virtues to which one would like to see all truth-tellers committed and which should be the hinges on which the work which goes into all media might turn are surely as cardinal for good journalism as they are for the Good Life itself – Prudence, Justice, Temperance and Fortitude.