Opinion

Sunday 16 December 2018

Putting a human face on last year's big stories

Politics always plays second fiddle to human interest stories and that's how it should be

TALKING POINT: Journalists must remember ‘what you’re writing is far less interesting to most people than Kim Kardashian’s backside’. Photo from Paper magazine
TALKING POINT: Journalists must remember ‘what you’re writing is far less interesting to most people than Kim Kardashian’s backside’. Photo from Paper magazine
Mairia Cahill

Eilis O'Hanlon

A conquering hero in ancient Rome would always be accompanied, as he paraded past the admiring crowds, by a slave whose sole job was to stop him getting too full of himself by whispering in his ear: "Memento mori." Remember you will die.

There should be one of those standing beside every Taoiseach too, especially ones with large majorities. Remember thou must face re-election. In fact, we could all benefit from the same injunction to humility from time to time.

As journalists sit down to pen another piece on some junior minister's prospects in a coming reshuffle, or to preview an international summit to decide the fate of Ukraine or the melting ice caps, someone should be on hand to whisper: "Remember, what you're writing is far less interesting to most people than Kim Kardashian's backside."

The triumph of celebrity as the defining fixation of our time must feel like a punch in the gut to men like Fred Kaplan. He's an award-winning journalist, with a PhD from MIT and a Pulitzer Prize to his name, and he writes a weekly column on American politics for the left wing magazine Slate; but it wasn't his recent treatise on Barack Obama's strategy for defeating ISIS which topped the list of most viewed items on the magazine's website last year.

Instead, that honour went to a random word generator which "Travoltifies" your name in the style of John Travolta's mispronunciation of "Idina Menzel" at the Oscars.

It would be unfair to single out Slate magazine. Even in the holier than thou Irish Times, it was the same. The biggest story published in 2014 by Ireland's, ahem, "paper of record" was a link to a YouTube video of the singing priest in Meath. The Guardian was no more highbrow. All those earnest progressives, sitting down each week to compose another sermon on the evils of patriarchal capitalism, and what was the top story on the great leftie daily bible last year? The leak of Hunger Games star Jennifer Lawrence's nude selfies.

To be fair to Guardian readers, if we must, their list of top stories did include some significant events, including Ebola and the comet landing. But the Scottish independence vote aside, there was, notably, no sign of politics anywhere.

Crime stories, check. The Sydney siege, check. The still unsolved disappearance of flight MH370, very much so. But no matter what media one looks at, left or right, radical or conservative, politics always plays second fiddle to human interest stories.

It's becoming something of a cliché by now to complain about this. To see it as a sign of our growing infantilisation as trivia and tittle-tattle takes over the world. Ultimately though, those who prioritise the supposed inconsequential over the allegedly meaningful are probably making the right choice. It's only intellectual snobbery which insists some subjects are are too trifling to merit attention. In fact, there's a case to be made that it should be the other way round. What we dismiss as trivia has far more impact on the richness of our lives than any Government directive.

The death of cricketer Phillip Hughes after being struck by a ball touched Australians deeply, not because they're consumed by celebrity, but because the death of a young man, with everything to live for, should touch them. It would be astonishing if they were not affected. Banal as it sounds, people care what happens to other people.

One could see the fascination with murders and tragic accidents, stories which also feature amongst the year's most widely read, as ghoulish voyeurism, but the fascination stems much more from a sense of community. That's why the political stories that make the greatest impact tend to be those which have that human connection. Being able to put a name and face to a story will always matter.

One of the biggest stories in the US last year was the decision not to prosecute the policeman who shot dead unarmed black teenager Michael Brown. "Black on black" violence claims far more lives, but the victims remain anonymous. Seeing Brown as an individual made the difference.

That was shown in the response to Maria Cahill too. People were aware, in an abstract way, that IRA sex offenders were being protected by Sinn Fein, but it wasn't until they could hear Maria tell her story directly that they were able to humanise the story. Similarly, the way in which the issue of the legal constraints on pregnant women became encapsulated in the story of a brain dead mother being kept alive to give her unborn child the chance of survival was far more potent than any abstract legal debate.

There's a lesson in that for politicians. Any fool can deliver a rousing speech about water charges or the eighth amendment. It's much harder to connect to issues on a human level, and a politician who understands why people care more about celebrity break-ups than Cabinet meetings has a much greater chance of doing it. You might even say they should study Kim Kardashian's rear end for tips, rather than talk out of their own. It would certainly make a refreshing change.

Sunday Independent

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