When you’re a few years older than most of the people you socialise with, you get quite used to the odd temporal culture shock. Different kid’s TV, different music, these are the points of reference that put a hiccup in your day. The aggressive ideologising and politicising of a past that you lived through as if it’s ancient history. These things can mislead one into feeling superior – in the same way that seeing the technology that you didn’t get to grow up with, or watching people going through their first heartbreak or triumph and getting to sincerely believe that this is as bad or as good as it’s going to get, or even getting to drink and dance and party in a club without feeling a little old can make you feel bad about yourself.
I try not to feel either way if I can avoid it. I’m married to a woman eleven years my junior for a start, so it’d be a sure recipe for disharmony and depression, and that also means I have daily reminders of how very much more grown-up than me younger people can be.
But it’s there, a fairly constant part of existing and getting older, that you’re always processing the passage of time, and measuring yourself against your environment. Finding new ways to look at the world.
One perspective that hadn’t occurred to me until the other night, at a friend and colleague’s 23rd birthday – or at least that I hadn’t thought about in a really long time – was that most of the people I know today, either online or off, aren’t old enough to really remember any news or media in the UK before Princess Diana died.
We do this thing constantly – and everybody does it once they’ve hit the point where they start to really be aware of the long passage of time – where when a huge event or popular song or movie from the past comes to mind we’re suddenly shocked by how much time has passed. I think it’s a pretty abstract moment for most, but it can be bracing and feel meaningful, like looking at a particularly high fatality statistic after a disaster.
And another thing we do as a society – especially online – is measure how our culture has changed primarily through technological advances, or those big crunch where-were-you-when moments. Both of these behaviours make perfect sense as coping mechanisms for the world around us.
There’s truth in those numbers, and more truth in the observation that technology or trauma can change a culture, and I’m not remotely the first or even nearly the smartest person to say it.
Diana dying was a catalyst for changes that had already been brewing in the way media worked, and the way the British population interfaced emotionally with each other and the media, but that were suddenly normalised and formalised by the intensity of that event. Before Diana died, news outlets were already starting to push the human interest aspect of news items forward, and the population was already starting to demand it, and feel like it had a – ill-informed, often illegible and confused – voice in the media – but that ex-Royal car-crash was the point were both the news media and the public’s push in that direction got validation.
It was suddenly okay to travel hundreds of miles with a bouquet of flowers so that you might be seen to be mourning someone you’d never met. Normal people were now comfortable with deciding how other people – in this case the Royals – should be feeling emotions, and telling the world about it, and it was now okay for the news media to give those normal people a platform.
People have always had it in them to be busy-bodies, and to pass judgment on others or enforce their values on them. Until then, however, it had mostly been a behaviour that was kept in check, in mainstream Britain at least, by the cultural understanding that it might be human nature, but it wasn’t one of our more admirable traits. Of course, the tabloids always provided a pressure valve on that side of our character – The Day Today wasn’t just prescient, after all, it was satirising stuff that was already happening in news media – but it wasn’t yet the whole conversation.
Diana broke all that, in much the same way that the World Trade Center attack broke a similar but less trivial part of US culture. Suddenly, being an outspoken idiot on TV wasn’t just a fringe behaviour, it was the way we now did business.
We had the internet back then, but we didn’t have Twitter yet. Facebook wasn’t a thing. Blogs as we know them didn’t exist yet. The idea of a dynamic, user-generated web, where everyone has a voice, was in its infancy, and inaccessible to most.
But Diana dying was still a cultural clusterfuck of clamour and public displays of who-can-cry-the-hardest=who-cares-the-most, the like of which detractors of social media blame on the technology. The social web was probably on its way technologically already, but the culture was already in place, impatient, waiting for the tech to catch up.
None of which are new observations, as I’ve said, and if I seem to not be making a point that’s because this is mostly a meander on my way to one. And it isn’t even a particularly big one.
(…is probably what she/he said.)
What occurred to me in the middle of a conversation about this stuff the other night is that it isn’t important that most of the people I know weren’t there to see these changes, or even got to see what it was like before – as I’ve said, this was already on it’s way to happening, and was probably inevitable for decades – but that they don’t really have anything to compare where we’ve been since to.
For them, as long as they’ve been aware of the news and media – let’s say most people really start processing this stuff properly in their late teens – it’s been like this. The first time a lot of people even pay attention to the news is around these big stories, so for a lot of people the Diana coverage will have been the first news story they really noticed.
Diana died fifteen years ago. That means pretty much anyone under thirty now, and probably quite a few people in their thirties, don’t really know any different. This is just how the news is.
(Education exacerbates this. A lot of Higher Education providers in the UK are more focussed – often forced by external forces – on employability than academic or intellectual pursuits, and this means that often students are being trained to hold down a job in the current status quo, with aspirational subjects like ethics or the philosophies behind a subject being covered on the periphery. In journalism, this means training people to cover news the way it’s being covered right now, not encouraging them to aim for something better.
This doesn’t mean academics and students aren’t aware of how awful things are, but it does mean that where there could be anger or aspiration there is more often resignation.)
This is how things get bad. Not with people thinking things are bad, but by them never having known a time when it was better.
SO ANYWAY here’s the point. What all of this fidgetty, ill-informed pontificating has made me realise is that I’m maybe too hard on people like Laurie Penny. They’ve never known a time when stories – worthwhile or otherwise – were covered any way other than they are now, from a single emotional viewpoint, with an unashamed ideological bias and an avatar for the human interest element at the center – either someone who needs speaking for, or the author themselves in a pinch.
It’s hard to understand, post-Diana, that there used to be a more distinct line between journalists and columnists. Maybe not in the tabloids, but even the people working for the tabloids pre-Diana would have probably told you that a day when their way of managing the conversation became the way of managing the conversation would be a grim day indeed.
Fuck only knows how pre-Diana documentary makers feel these days.
So authors like Penny – who at least has a good way with prose – can’t be blamed for reducing the level of the conversation with rhetoric, agenda and cult of personality. The culture was broken when they got here, and they were shown the way by arguably the biggest cult we’ve had. Diana – the one that showed us that it didn’t matter what you had – or didn’t have – to say, as long as your heart was in the right place. Or at least on your sleeve, and bleeding.
Just because there are so many writers covering subjects that they are emotionally or ideologically invested in while still managing to scrutinise their own arguments and information, doesn’t mean I should hate the people who can’t pull it off or don’t see it as a priority. I should be happy to see the former writers as exceptional thinkers breaking through a near ubiquitous overcast cloud of mediocrity, and just not read the others.
Johann Hari had no fucking excuse, mind.
(To clarify: I don’t have a problem with authors who mix up current affairs, anecdote and ideology, and there’s a place for rhetoric and rants – this is one, after all, and I’m not even claiming to cover new ground here – but being an activist or opinion-former AND a journalist should be really tricky ground to navigate ideologically and practically, and I think it’s become far easier to stomp all over that line without applying journalistic rigour, or holding yourself to a higher standard than your subject, than it may have been in the past. You don’t get to present yourself as Nelly Bly without being an awful lot more like Nelly Bly.)