Are you sitting comfortably? Then we’ll begin by tuning in to a wonderful Radio 4 series called The Corrections. The third episode is on this morning and it’s a must for anyone who loves listening to stories.
Human beings, of course, have an insatiable appetite for stories. They resonate with the deepest part of our psyche. Storytelling is the natural way the brain interprets and organises information.
Apologies: a slight correction. I won’t be sitting too comfortably by my radio at 11am. For, as a journalist for the past three decades, my preconceptions about news stories have been challenged by this brimmingly-insightful, thought-provoking series. It has even made me question the basic values of my profession.
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One of my favourite books about storytelling is Into The Woods by the distinguished scriptwriter John Yorke. “It is an indispensable human preoccupation,” Yorke insists. “As important (almost) as breathing.” From classic crime drama to Shakespeare, through Game of Thrones and Harry Potter to EastEnders and Big Brother, he examines the plot archetypes of all narratives: a hero (protagonist), a villain (antagonist) and a goal.
This past week, for example, the Conservatives have been telling their story at the party conference in Manchester. Their hero is a blond-haired, fun-loving, charismatic chap called Johnson. Their villain is an evil parliament, which is betraying the will of the people by failing to respect the result of the 2016 referendum. Their goal is to “get Brexit done”. Simples.
Only it’s not so simple. The “people versus parliament” narrative might strike a chord with certain sections of the public but, to other sections, it is a false binary. Boris Johnson, or rather his chief strategist Dominic Cummings, has framed the narrative in such a way to discredit the notion that leaving the EU without a deal would be a catastrophe.
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An alternative way of presenting the issue would be a “parliament versus Johnson” narrative in which an authoritarian prime minister, elected by a tiny percentage of the population, attempts to thwart the will of the people, as expressed by Westminster.
The four case studies examined in The Corrections suggest, depressingly, that the mainstream media’s fixation with sensational narratives – occasionally employing the dark arts of rhetoric, metaphor and innuendo – can sometimes leave readers, viewers and listeners with the wrong idea about what really happened.
Take the 2015 tale of the 92-year-old poppy-seller Olive Cooke, who was found dead at the bottom of a gorge. It was claimed that her death was the result of receiving hundreds of begging letters from charities. Using Yorke’s three plot archetypes, the consensus was that Olive was the hero, the charities were the villains of the piece and the goal was to change the practices of fundraising organisations.
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This narrative, of a vulnerable old lady exhausted by predatory organisations asking her for money, clearly influenced the decision by David Cameron’s government to introduce General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) legislation – which had a devastating effect on the databases of all charities.
Yorkshire Post readers will be reassured to learn that the local reporter who broke the story avoided such a simplistic explanation. Indeed, she attempted to steer her counterparts from the nationals away from such a false framing, not least because of the deep distress it caused to the poppy-seller’s family.
“Real life,” insisted one of the programme’s presenters, “is grey and complex and multi-faceted.” Mrs Cooke’s situation, as her granddaughter explained, was far more complicated than the stories claimed.
Turning people into two-dimensional characters – goodies and baddies, heroes and villains, democrats and traitors – is an acceptable, even essential, device in TV, theatre and film drama, where the facts tend to get in the way of a good story. In news reporting, as I was taught when I started out on a local newspaper, this temptation should always be avoided.
And yet it appears that both national journalism and national politics are obsessed at the moment with sensational narratives that don’t hold up to scrutiny.
There are, as the cliché has it, two sides to every story. In our current polarised political conversations this is, perhaps, only to be expected. When it comes to news stories, however, the facts should always be paramount.