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Manufacturing gossip

If self-portraits and liberal commonsense are any guide, we should be thankful for the press, and most particularly for the BBC. The purpose of news journalism is to present a neutral report of the relevant facts so that citizens in a democracy can make informed judgements and hold those in power to account. That’s the theory. It’s worth having a quick look at the gap between theory and practice.

On 2 March, on a page dedicated to the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton that will take place on 29 April, and which excitedly and prominently displays how many days there are to go till the big day, the BBC website ‘reported’ that ‘speculation has been rife about the bride’s dress’. This was an introduction to a ‘behind-the-scenes glimpse of the work involved in the creation of a couture wedding gown’, and formed merely the start of a dedicated journalistic enterprise that brought us up-to-date information on what the happy couple did on pancake day, how Kate might deal with her first foreign trip, and a useful guide to ‘five things we know about the wedding (and five we don’t)’. (In case you’re wondering, we know when and where the wedding will be held; we don’t yet know whether William will ‘fulfil’ his ‘destiny’.)

All of this is no doubt essential information for citizens of a democracy who need to make informed judgements. No doubt the journalists who wrote it are doing a marvellous job holding those in power to account. But there can only be one reaction to the news that ‘speculation is rife’ when it comes to the royal wedding. It’s the reaction the late comedian Bill Hicks gave when George Bush Snr solemnly informed us that the world is a dangerous place: “Yeah, thanks to you, you fucker.” In other words, the sources of the ‘speculation’ are largely the very people who report on the speculation.

This brings us to another myth about the news media, which is that, if they can indeed be charged with filling their pages and programming with meaningless trivia and gossip, then this is only because that’s what people want. But this is also false. In a survey of 1,006 British adults conducted by market research agency ComRes in November 2010, for example, a clear majority said they were ‘not excited’ by the wedding. Of the sample, some 31% said they ‘couldn't care less’ about the event and a further 28% described themselves as ‘largely indifferent’. Clearly, speculation was not ‘rife’ everywhere.

So, given that the wedding is of no significance to democratic decision-making, nor in holding those in power to account, nor in responding to public demand, what can account for the press’s blanket coverage? It’s relatively simple. The government and the royal family spend millions of pounds on public relations – and that money brings results. The first task of a supine journalist is to rewrite press releases from the PR departments of corporations and government. (The fact that ‘investigative journalism’ needs a special name tells you all you need to know about the ordinary kind.) In short, what we are fed in the news is not news at all, but propaganda – it’s what the people in power want us to know, what they want us to think, what they want us to be concerned with. Gossip about a royal wedding fits that purpose just fine.