Sunday, September 07, 2008

A Sunday in the life

For several months, dear reader, I have been carefully studying every edition of the Herald on Sunday, in order that this august organ might reveal its secrets. I strove to find the essence of HoS, the elements that make the Herald on Sunday the award-winning success-story that it is today, a paper loved by its adoring readers and feared by its envious rivals. Reader, I believe that my quest is now over. I can now tell you the secret of HoS.

The fundamental particles of any Herald on Sunday story are these:
tragedy
property
celebrity
These particles can be found as singletons or in combination with one another. Some examples: a simple tragedy is the story of a carload of teens being killed in a crash somewhere in the Waikato; a simple property story is one about falling house prices or falling houses; a simple celebrity story is something about Paris Hilton, the well-known simple celebrity.

As noted above, these elements can be found in combination. A possible tragedy-property story would be one about an elderly couple who put their life savings into the hands of a shonky property investment company. Celebrity-property stories are about the lifestyles of the rich and famous, which are endlessly fascinating. Celebrity-tragedy combinations happen all the time and are too numerous to list. The principle celebrity victim of tragedy is Jen, who is on the covers of the women's weeklies every week, having suffered yet another misfortune in the last seven days; she took on this role when Nicole's life suddenly became much more fortunate and so much less interesting; soon it may be Jen's turn to pass this role on to a less fortunate actress.

Very rarely, all three elements can be found in one story, an event of great import, which journalists liken to the alignment of the planets or The Perfect Storm (an appalling movie but a great metaphor). One such combination was the cover story of the HoS for the Sunday before last. It reads thus:
TRAGIC BALCONY PLUNGE
Toni Marsh's brother suffers head injuries at reality star Aja Rock's apartment
As you can see clearly, everything is in place. Now I should emphasise that I do not wish to make light of this poor man's accident, only to observe that it was the lead story. And the reason why this accident, one of many that happen every day, was selected to be the lead story is that the victim is the brother of a celebrity and that his accident occurred at the home of another, a home which is illustrated with the story.

For the benefit of readers who do not take an interest in celebrity lifestyles, I should explain that Toni Marsh is a Weather Girl, a job description which means that she is a grown woman who reads the weather forecasts on the television news. For the benefit of readers overseas, I should explain that New Zealand is a country where very little happens. This is a good thing, because most things that happen are bad things. But it does make this country news-poor. On the other hand, we are weather-rich: the climate is always doing something interesting. Consequently, much of our news broadcasts are taken up by weather forecasts; the people who read these forecasts are among our most valued celebrities.

I am afraid I cannot tell you much about Aja Rock. I understand she was imported from overseas. I believe she is one of those faux rock starlets, the sort of woman who impresses men with IQs in double figures as being a bad girl. I think she is mostly famous for being unsuccessful. I seem to recall there was something to do with someone called Tommy Lee who was in a band called Motley Crüe which had an umlaut (why are there no umlauts in the word 'umlaut?') and tattoos. For some reason Ms Rock is in New Zealand. I could be wrong about any of these things but I cannot be bothered to look her up on Wikiwhatever.

The third player in this drama is the apartment, the "terrace" of which lacked a handrail. I know neither Ms Marsh nor Ms Rock but I do know this building. It is on Great North Road, among the car yards and service centres. It was built as an office building. It is a drab, ugly building on a drab, ugly road. I cannot understand why anyone would live there, let alone someone with pretensions to social success. I suppose it is convenient when you want to get your Ferrari fixed.

Now, I may not know or care much about celebrities but I do know about architecture. So, in what may be the first instance of this blogeur doing journalism, I visited the scene of the accident. Clearly, the three journalists assigned to this story know nothing about architecture. The building has no "terrace." It has a flat roof. There is no balcony: a balcony, by definition, has a handrail or balustrade; had there been a balcony, there would have been no plunge and therefore no tragedy. There is no apartment. Downstairs is a bathroom showroom; upstairs are empty offices. It is a work in progress. If Ms Rock and her partner are living there, they must be roughing it.

The man who fell from the terrace without a handrail is of little interest to the story, other than his accident being the cause of it. He is not famous. His accident would have gone unnoticed by the HoS, had not the property from which he fell been that of a famous person and had he not been the brother of another famous person.

Of course, other events do happen in New Zealand but they lack the essential elements for the Herald on Sunday and so will be found somewhere between the ads in the middle pages, if at all. The Emissions Trading Scheme, for example, is not HoS material. It may be very important but it is not interesting. The tragedy of teens dying in a car crash, on the other hand is not important but is interesting. These unfortunate people are of no consequence to us; we would have not heard of them had they not died tragically. But the tragedy of their deaths makes them newsworthy in a way that legislation which affects our lives and the planet's future can never be. Similarly, the reasons why shonky investment companies keep falling over is much less interesting than the stories of people who have lost all because they invested in these companies. They are perfect HoS material, unimportant but interesting stories.

One could, if one had the time and patience as well as a grant from the Marsden Fund, plot these news stories on a matrix. Its axes would be importance and interest, one being important/unimportant, the other being interesting/uninteresting. A story would fall somewhere between these extremes (I really am overexplaining this; I will stop now). The result would look like that political compass thing that everyone has on their Facebook profile to show how socially liberal they are.

I think the Litterick Matrix (as it shall now be called in perpetuity) would show that News is not so much about facts as feelings. Only stories that evoke appropriate feelings are newsworthy. So it really doesn't matter that the planet is on the brink of catastrophe. It matters that a celebrity somewhere is suffering.

9 comments:

Giles Corey said...

Eloquently put! By chance, a renewal notice from the HOS arrived in my letterbox this very weekend.

It proved to be better at lighting my woodburner than the HOS has been in firing my imagination.

harvestbird said...

I don't suppose the HOS covered my favourite celebrity-property-tragedy story, which was of how Barry Gibb (I think) bought one of Johnny Cash's houses shortly after the latter's death, only to have it burn down before he took possession. One of the Oak Ridge Boys (the one with the ooom-pappa-mow-mow deep voice) opined that the fire must have been because God felt that only Johnny should ever live in that house. I am not making this up.

Peter in Dundee said...

I like the fact that all road deaths are reported in New Zealand. Here in the UK if you avoid the local rags road deaths only make the news if they are especially 'interesting'. If they involve an especially large number of people or all but one of a family kind of thing.

A few years ago we were proceeding southward between Jedburgh and Newcastle in the Borders and at a particular corner it was clear that a northbound motorcyclist had completely failed to take the corner and had ended up in a field while his bike lay crumpled against the dry stone wall. The rescue helicopter was just lifting off as we passed. After our two weeks driving around Germand and the Czech Republic (Hic!) i attempted to discover the fate of the unfortunate rider. It took considerable digging on the internet and the finding of the afforementioned local paper for the area to discover he had died.

Thus the road toll is not a matter of public or media attention here as it is in NZ. Nobody except the emergency services note if the last bank holiday weekend was more deadly than last year's. Thus the road toll barely budges, relying on safer cars and a decrease in motorcycling (soon to be reversed as fuel prices rise) to have an effect. Nobody drives any safer after thinking 'been dangerous, don't want to be a statistic'.

So don't decry the stories of apparently mundane car accidents. it is nice that reporting them seems like someone cares.

Keri Hulme said...

"The Perfect Storm" was a dog of a film but the book it was based upon, "The Perfect Storm" by Sebastien Junger, is an excellent & compelling read. I highly reccommend it.

Clunking Fist said...

Hmmm. I really don't deserve to comment after keri hume, but I AM the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, so what the hey.

Thankfully the Herald on Weekday overcame a fascination with tragedy/property/celebrity long enough to get us interested in the Electoral Finance Bill (now Act).

Perhaps the HoS is right to yawn at the mention of Global Warming. I'll bet they get interested in the Emissions Trading Scheme/Scam when the personal and tragic consequences become interesting...

Anonymous said...

Their celebrity and property plotlines came together again yesterday for an absurd feature in which they speculated on the falling property values of well-known NZers (Helen Clark, Jonah Lomu etc). Ridiculously lightweight on one hand, creepily voyeuristic on the other. But then that's the HoS -- laughably, NZ "newspaper of the year" -- in a nutshell.

Pablo said...

Aah, Prime Minister, but the EFA was a perfect storm of Celebrity (that nice Mr Key), Tragedy (taking away the rights of the rich), and Property (at a stretch, the return of the Nats to their rightful place on the 9th floor of the Beehive). you'd think if a guy had to make a film about the sea, you'd bet the house on the Das Boot guy to make a good one.

Keri Hulme said...

There are books that translate well to film, in the hands of a gifted director ("Das Boot" is an example) and there are books that dont ("The Perfect Storm" in the hands of the same director.) The book has -for me- a wonderful almost clinical edge to it, and the mass of information is entrancing...people who fly into the centres of hurricanes, people to 'chute into tempestuous seas to help save lives, not to mention stuff about longlining for swordfish (the reason I bought the book in the first place...beats the crap out of property/celebrity/tragedy trivia (tho' the tragedy was very real...)

Lita said...

I thought exactly that, "it isn't a terrace".