George Walford: Why It Sells

‘Small earthquake in Chile, not many dead.’ Whether the headline ever appeared or not it makes a good story, and Martyn Lewis, a BBC newscaster, may have had it in mind when making his suggestion. He wants the media to pay greater attention to ‘positive news’; not packing the bulletins with cheerful trivia, but weighing the upbeat stories on the same scales as the horrors and disasters.

Freedom, the anarchist fortnightly, scorns the idea: ‘Obviously the man means well, but surely he should know that what sells the tabloid press is dirt, what makes the “telly” exciting is violence.’ The media, and particularly the tabloids, concentrate on sex, crime and violence, they publicise the misbehaviour of tennis, snooker, football and television stars, politicians and industrialists. Why? Because this brings them the huge audiences, the mass sales, and with them the high-paying advertisers and the big profits. In saying all this, Freedom is perfectly right. And we can agree with them, also, wishing that things were otherwise. But they don’t get to grips with the real question: Who is to blame?

The media have no way of compelling their readers and viewers, they have to attract them, and they do this by offering the news that sells. It is no fantasy to say that if the audience were different their contents would be different, for many journals appealing to specialist audiences do offer material of a different sort: the TLS, Nature, Scientific American, the anthropological quarterly that still boldly calls itself MAN, and all the academic journals. Having little to say about anarchism, their contents may not meet with the full approval of Freedom, but they don’t print much dirt or violence. Come to that, what about Freedom itself? These also are among the media, but not the mass media. Every journal, film, or television programme adapts itself to its intended audience, and it is because the great numbers find the contents of the tabloids and their like attractive that this material gets presented in overwhelming quantity.

Not the presenters, owners or advertisers but the audience decides what shall appear in the mass media. Journals that depart far from this standard attract few readers and become of little effect – witness Freedom itself. After making full allowance for all the difficulties it faces, we are still left with the brute reality, that of the people who have access to this journal the overwhelming majority choose not to buy or to read it. If the mass media were to start presenting the sort of material Freedom would like to see printed, the sort of material it presents itself, they would lose their audience and, if they survived at all, come to exercise little more influence than Freedom does. They might even be reduced to the stature of IC.

As we have said before, and expect to say many times yet, it is no aspiration but simple present truth that power belongs to the people. They decide which journals shall flourish, and they choose to support the ones Freedom despises. In doing so they demonstrate the persistence of an early mode of behaviour, for both among children and in early societies tales of sex, violence and wickedness attract the big numbers. Look at fairy tales with their princes, princesses, wolves, giants and witches. Look at the Iliad – two gangs of toughs kicking each other’s teeth in. And for that matter, look at the Old Testament; the lads who wrote that knew what would attract an audience. Thousands of years old, largely disowned even by much of the Church, it still outsells all the anarchist papers put together.

from Ideological Commentary 62, November 1993.