WHICH WEB PAPER DO YOU TAKE?
IT might be fancy, but for those familiar with the Sherlock Holmes classic The Man With the Twisted Lip, it’s possible to appreciate how many journalists might well end up like Hugh Boone, from the annals of the great writer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
In the short story featuring the great detective, the noble Neville St Clair, the epitome of middle class respectability, leaves his family in their respectable country house by day, and returns in the evening to his wife and children to enjoy an evening of equal domestic semi luxury.
But unbeknown to his wife, the fine journalist, discovers, through pure chance, that he can earn more as a street beggar in the City, spouting Shakespeare and other literary soliloquies - much to the delight of his kindly broker benefactors who toss him sovereigns in the gutter - before he sheds his mired beggary garb and returns home in his normal finery.
It is only when his wife spots her husband in the upstairs window of one of the vile alleys of London, that the game is blown.
St Clair then permanently takes on the guise of Boone (Neville St Clair ‘apparently’ is murdered) – and only Holmes realises both characters are one in the same. A bath sponge and a gallon of water to wash off Boone/St Clair’s disguise are all that it takes.
While many journalists thrive – the editor of the Guardian for example earns a six figure salary (and perhaps justifiably so), many in the provinces earn far, far less.
In fact, since the dawn of the internet revolution, the situation has become so bad for some that a career as a dustman – seemingly unthinkable to those who read their degrees in the days of Mrs Thatcher, could prove to be a more lucrative profession.
Others would argue that journalists have been peddling trash for centuries.
But as the internet and cuts continue to bite, droves of freelancers face the prospect of polite refusals for much of their work, as intelligent as it might be.
And as more paperless news sites proliferate, the situation in theory can only get worse.
In the meantime, many a staffer fears for his or her job, which are seeing their salaries, make little headway in a flat industry in a flat economy. Suddenly it ain’t so smart to be smart.
All sectors of the economy at the end of the day face the same problems of supply and demand.
No matter how good your degree, in whatever profession, no matter how much you smarm to the boss, or how much you are a demonstrator of ‘best practice’, the economy can still get you in the end.
As the ‘traditional’ professions struggle – and as many so called gilt edged security jobs in government (those with index linked pension) vanish in the wave of cuts, it’s perhaps understandable how the younger generations look to the world of celebrity as some form of solace.
Many might hate the X factor, and its gaudiness, but for some it does change lives.
And not just change lives, but to such an extent that, for the winners, they need never worry again about what a pension is, never mind how much they might get per year.
Given that to be part of the landed gentry is beyond the hopes of many (from an income point of view), not to mention the aristocracy and the enclosed circles of the Royals and court, what hope for the rest of us?
For many, the aspirations of the ‘middle class’ remains a goal; others are fortunate to be born into that strata. Others think even this class is beneath them.
Aside from a certain income level, as Bob and Terry from the Likely Lads knew, there are other perks. Membership of the squash club; aperitifs before bridge at the Conservative Club; the choice of lead in the Operatic Society’s review; the middle row in the Festival Chorus; cello practice.
As the wonderful Sir John Betjeman (a product of middle class suburbia who arguably entered ‘established’ sensibilities after studying English at Oxford) had it in his quintessential middle class idyll Myfanwy:
Trace me your wheel-tracks, you fortunate bicycle,
Out of the shopping and into the dark,
Back down the avenue, back to the potting shed,
Back to the house on the fringe of the park.
Golden the light on the locks of Myfanwy,
Golden the light on the book on her knee,
Finger marked pages of Rackham's Hans Anderson,
Time for the children to come down to tea.
Betjeman’s glowing eulogy to an older time is the perfect example of the use of metonymy or even synecdoche; that symbolism or part standing for a whole to represent a time and place.
What better example is there of an object typifying a person’s status level than the quality of someone’s larder?
Myfanwy’s family I suspect might have abhorred at SPAM or Vesta curries and yet relished anything Douwe Egberts or Molton Brown in modern day Britain.
Many a time – walking in park or in some leafy city suburb – you can still catch the sort of house Myfany might have inhabited.
Often a little slate turreted, even with a hint of the Gothic, surrounded by a low stone wall with those reassuring iron railings which smack of late Edwardian stolidity.
Mary Myfanwy Evans herself had a smattering of journalism as a background. She was born on 28 March 1911 into a Welsh family in London. Her father was a chemist in Hampstead, north London. She attended North London Collegiate School, from where she won a scholarship to read English Language and Literature at St Hugh's College, Oxford.
From 1935 to 1937 she edited the periodical, Axis, devoted to abstract art. In 1937 she married the artist John Piper, with whom she lived in rural surroundings at the delightfully sounding Fawley Bottom near Henley-on-Thames for much of her life.
Between 1954 and 1973 she collaborated with the composer Benjamin Britten on several of his operas, and between 1977 and 1981 with composer Alun Hoddinott on most of his operatic works.
She was a friend of Betjeman, who wrote several poems addressing her, such as "Myfanwy and "Myfanwy at Oxford".
What a better testament to the English middle class – that class which originally scrabbled ashore from their origins in northern Germany and lower Denmark to cling to the eastern extremity of a land inhabited by the original Britons, Welsh, Picts and other tribes.
It’s a long way from the rude huts of Schleswig Holstein to Chambray Lightshades.
How does all this apply to journalism?
Well, journalists are often viewed as being the guardians of the English class system.
The Daily Express for example carries a Rupert cartoon not jut out of whimsy but almost as a representation of the type of person which reads their paper.
It might be a little old fashioned, but not for no reason does Rupert’s dad wear plus fours and tweeds.
His mum is a home-bear and they live on a fringe of a town in a house with nice railings which is a convenient bus ride from the local metropolis and appropriately semi-rural.
Rupert’s friends are well spoken and well dressed and are confident enough to explore semi-rural like lands within the safety of home without danger.
Their homes are within reach of sketched woodland which offer the promise of hidden windmills within forests and a hint of the exotic, or magic realism as Gabriel Garcia Marquez might have had it.
This is the world that the Daily Express would have us exemplify or at least one which readers of the Daily Express inhabit and subscribe to; not just from a newspaper point of view but from a philosophical and philological outlook.
In the meantime, that other form of media, advertising, perpetuates the myth that everyone is middle class and that journalists can afford expensive lunches.
In the 20th C, the newspaper you bought not only reflected your attitude to the news, but also the type of ‘class’ you either were a member of or at least aspired to.
Yes Prime Minister’s Jim Hacker famous one repeated an old joke about Fleet Street:
PM Jim Hacker: "Don't tell me about the press. I know exactly who reads the papers: The Daily Mirror is read by people who think they run the country, the Guardian is read by people who think they ought to run the country, the Times is read by people who actually do run the country, the Daily Mail is read by the wives of the people who run the country, the Financial Times is read by people who own the country, the Morning Star is read by people who think the country ought to be run by another country and the Daily Telegraph is read by people who think it is."
Sir Humphrey: "Prime Minister, what about the people who read the Sun?"
Bernard Woolley: "Sun readers don't care who runs the country, as long as she's got big tits."
Today, in the world of web papers and news apps, the media landscape is far from clear. As papers come to terms with the decline in print, the apparent failure of paywalls and the demands of new technology, certain papers are making a greyhound like dash ahead of the others into the new media realm.
The Mail Online, and its app, which looks to be fastest out of the blocks currently, is now the biggest web paper/app in the world (by all reasonable estimates).
The website reached 105.72 million unique web browsers in August 2012, up from 66 million in March 2011, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations. That figure makes it the world's most popular news site.
Globally, it was the most visited newspaper website, according to ComScore, whose methodology gave the site 50.1 million unique visitors for October 2012, ahead of the previous leader, The New York Times website, which received 48.7 million visitors in the same month. It had over 130m visitors by July 2013 according to one reckoning.
While the Daily Mail has always sold well in traditional paper format – traditionally the second placed tabloid behind The Sun – why has it become so dominant?
Perhaps new tech holds the key plus its easy appeal to the Ipad and such like. But perhaps globalization is the other reason.
In the hierarchy of news which exists, national newspapers have become international news webs.
The beauty of the internet newspaper is that is now has a global reach – and more to the point that the Iphone/Pad etc is the new newspaper delivery boy.
Furthermore as the global recession impacts traditional middle class professions – ironically largely to the internet – more and more people are struggling to recognise what class they are.
1999 was perhaps the turning point for newspapers and the British class system, as well as the century.
In that year, the internet started to become prevalent in people’s homes; internet advertising started to appear on tv and internet shopping began to get a foothold.
As I write at the start of 2014, Amazon is one of the biggest online retailers in the world, print newspapers look almost analogue compared to their digital counterparts and more supermarkets are undertaking home delivery.
It might be slightly Orwellian, but some are predicting a future - perhaps less than ten years from now -where online retailers become super dominant, the High Street become a virtual ghost town as the big players move their operations online, and news becomes wholly online as part of a general super convergence of media; perhaps all through our tv sets.
In the more distant future, is it too much to anticipate a dystopian landscape in which huge warehouses manned by robots cover the land, acting as hubs of need; the high street bulldozed, the local bakers gone, the newspaper offices all closed, banks become virtual; universities become learning hubs online? Perhaps not.
But if so, perhaps more importantly, how then to measure class? Was our concept of such always informed by the existence of our nation of shopkeepers, bank managers, and academics, metonyms in the different strata of the class system?
Several years from now, in such a possible dystopian future, someone might miss popping into the bakers, or indeed the type of shops and locales which typified Sir John’s poetry, and which provided many of his observations of British class and society.
If journalists and newspapers were always just avatars of such classes, where might they fit into the new world of this ever changing century? Perhaps Betjeman and Boone and Holmes had it right after all?