Mark Hurrell.


False news

29 November 2016

A revolution had taken place, and George Bernard Shaw assessed it with characteristic clarity. In 1879 his novel Immaturity was turned down by almost every London publisher. Looking back on this event and working out the reasons for it he realised that a radical change had occurred in the reading public. 'The Education Act of 1871', he explained 'was producing readers who had never bought books, nor could have read them if they had'. Publishers were finding that people wanted not George Eliot nor the 'excessively literary' Bernard Shaw, but adventure stories like Stevenson's Treasure Island and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. In this situation Shaw concludes, 'I, as a belated intellectual, went under completely.'

Shaw was joking of course. He did not go under but instead made the conscious decision to write for the millions. By the end of the 1880s he had made himself, as Max Beerbohm acknowledged, 'the most brilliant and remarkable journalist in London'. Newspapers, Shaw conceded, were 'fearfully mischievous' but indispensable. So he resolved to use them for self publicity.

It was to cater for the post-Education-Act reading public that the popular newspapers came into being. The pioneer was Alfred Harmsworth, later Lord Northcliffe. In 1896 he launched the Daily Mail, the paper with the biggest circulation at the start of the twentieth century. Its slogan was 'The Busy Man's Paper' - a hit at the idea of a leisured elite. 'A newspaper,' Northcliffe insisted, 'is to be made to pay. Let it deal with what interests the mass of people'. The principle of this new journalism was 'giving the public what it wants'. To intellectuals this naturally sounded ominous. Intellectuals believe in giving the public what intellectuals want; that, generally speaking, is what they mean by education.

Furthermore, the popular newspaper presented a threat because it created an alternative culture which bypassed the intellectual and made him redundant. By adopting sales figures as the sole criterion, journalism circumvented the traditional cultural elite. In an important sense, it took over the function of providing the public with fiction, dispensing with the need for novelists. This development hinged on the emergence in the later nineteenth century of what became known as the human interest story, a kind of journalism Northcliffe encouraged. In the Daily Mail and its rival, Beaverbrook's Daily Express, the concept of 'news' was deliberately extended beyond the traditional areas of business and politics to embrace stories about the everyday life of ordinary people. As Helen MacGill Hughes points out, this level of journalism supplied for the masses essentially the same aesthetic pleasure that literature gave to the more sophisticated, and commercialised what had previously circulated informally as a a component of popular culture in gossip, ballad and broadsheet. The question 'what are human interest stories for?' observes Hughes, will have the same answer as the question 'what are novels for?'

Among European intellectuals hostility to newspapers was widespread. The rabble 'vomit their bile and call it a newspaper', according to Nietzsche. 'We feel contemptuous of every kind of culture that is compatible with reading, not to speak of writing for, newspapers.' Surveying the cultural scene in the Criterion in 1938, T. S. Eliot maintained that the effect of daily or Sunday newspapers was to affirm them as a complacent, prejudiced and unthinking mass'. The cultural arbiter F. R. Leavis carried on an extended campaign against newspapers and the linked evil of advertising in the pages of Scrutiny. The mass media aroused 'the cheapest emotional responses' he warned: 'Films, newspapers, publicity in all forms, commercially catered fiction - all offer satisfaction at the lowest level.' Scrutiny itself made no bid for the popular market, never printing more that 750 copies per issue in the 1930s. Superciliousness about newspapers was displayed even by writers who were prepared to boost their income by writing for them. Evelyn Waugh, for example, satirised Fleet Street in Scoop and in Vile Bodies, where Lord Monomark of the Daily Express represents Beaverbrook.

For some male intellectuals, a regrettable aspect of popular newspapers was that they encouraged women. In the Nietzschean tradition the emancipation and education of women were signs of modern shallowness. The man who has depth, Nietzsche pronounces, can think of women only in an 'oriental way'. Thus Spake Zaruthustra contains the famous advice 'Are you visiting women? Do not forget your whip.' Northcliffe, by contrast, started a new trend among newspaper proprietors by considering women readers worthy of attention. In 1891 he launched a cheap illustrated women's weekly, Forget-Me-Not, which achieved a circulation of over 140,000 in three years and paved the way for the highly successful Home Chat. He also insisted on two columns of articles devoted to women's concerns in the Daily Mail. As D. L. Le Mahieu has shown in his study of nascent mass media, popular journalism became, however imperfectly, a channel for awareness, independence and self-reliance among young women. Male intellectuals reacted predictably. Attacking tabloids (of which Northcliffe's Daily Mirror, launched in 1903, was the first), Holbrook Jackson held female readers responsible for the new evil of pictorial journalism. Women habitually think in pictures, he explains, whereas men naturally aspire to abstract concepts. 'When men think pictorially they unsex themselves.'

But this contempt among intellectuals for newspapers is not shared by the great fictional intellectual of the period, Sherlock Holmes. While the intellectuals were busy inventing alarming versions of the masses for other intellectuals to read, Conan Doyle created, in Holmes, a comforting version of the intellectual for mass consumption - specifically for the middle and lower-middle-class readers of the Strand Magazine, where most of the Holmes stories appeared. Holmes is just as surely a product of mass culture as Nietzsche, his function being to disperse the fears of overwhelming anonymity that the urban mass brought. Holmes's redemptive genius as a detective lies in rescuing individuals from the mass. Characteristically at the start of the story he scrutinises the nondescript person who has arrived at his Baker Street rooms, observes how they dress, whether their hands are calloused, whether their shoe soles are worn, and amazes them by giving them an accurate account, before they have spoken a word, of their jobs, their habits and their individual interests. At all events, newspapers, the bugbear of real-life intellectuals, are one of Holmes's great enthusiasms, and a major resource in his battle against evil. He keeps huge files of newspaper cuttings, and uses the personal columns of newspapers to contact cab-drivers and other chance witnesses who might assist him in his enquiries. The role of the personal column in binding society into a reading group is admittedly, one of the less likely aspects of the Holmesian mis-en-scene, but its function is to combat the isolation and loneliness of the mass man. Holmes's passion for newspapers extends to an intimate knowledge of their typefaces, invaluable when confronted with criminals who use cut-up newsprint for their correspondence. Holmes claims in the Hound of the Baskervilles that he can identify any newspaper typeface on sight; 'though I confess that once when I was very young I confused the Leeds Mercury with the Western Morning News'.

Sherlock Holmes's adoption of the newspaper as an ally, when contrasted with the intellectuals' horror of newsprint, marks a fault line along which English culture was dividing. A gulf was opening, on one side of which the intellectual saw the vulgar, trivial working millions, wallowing in newsprint, and on the other side himself and his companions, functionless and ignored, reading Verginia Woolf and the Criterion - T. S. Eliot's cultural periodical, the circulation of which was limited, even on its best days, to some 800 subscribers. This view of England on opposite sides of a gulf is the one taken by F. R. Leavis in his first work, Mass Civilisation and Minority Culture, published in 1930. Leavis writes in the belief that 'culture is at a crisis' unprecedented in history. The mass media - radio, film, Northcliffe's newspapers - have brought about 'an overthrow of standards'. The small minority capable of a discerning appreciation of art and literature, on whom 'the possibilities of fine living at any time' depend, is beleaguered and 'cut off as never before from the powers that rule the world'. Authority has disappeared and, Leavis observes, an ominous new term, 'highbrow', has come into being to designate deviants like himself. 'The minority is made conscious, not merely of an uncongenial, but of a hostile environment.'

To highbrows, looking across the gulf, it seemed that the masses were not merely degraded and threatening, but also not fully alive.

John Carey, The Intellectuals and the Masses [modified]

Protect me from what Facebook suggests I want

Schumon Basar, Douglas Coupland and Hans Ulrich Obrist, The Age of Earthquakes [modified]

Shout out to Ella for pointing me at the John Carey book.

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