Threshold events: The British press and the Paris attacks

As part of their rolling coverage of the horrific atrocities in Paris, the Guardian has published on its website a collection of newspaper front page responses from both the UK and France. This is, of course, a standard enough practice for many news organisations in the wake of significant world events—whether they be positive or, in this case, staggeringly negative—but there’s something about seeing these responses side-by-side that I find peculiarly troubling. And that’s that not one of the British newspapers has decided to forgo the inclusion of either product advertisements or ‘sneak peek’ hints at other (lighter) stories contained elsewhere in their publications.

From the French newspapers we’re soberly and emphatically informed of yesterday’s events: there’s nowhere to hide from the grim reality of it all, from the unutterable sadness and anger that such incidents inevitably produce. Indeed, what we see on the front pages of L’Équipe, Libération and Aujourd’hui en France today is a depressing reminder of that which we saw, previously, on the front pages of the British newspapers in the wake of 7/7: full-page images, unadorned headlines, a single, baleful story.

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This would seem to me to be an appropriate strategy, a responsible (enough) way of responding to a traumatic event that exceeds immediate response. Yet what we find on the front pages of the British newspapers on the morning of November 14 is something altogether different: a jarring hotchpotch of the barbaric and the banal, the hideous and the downright fucking fatuous.

Here, for example, is an early edition of this morning’s Daily Mirror front page, which combines the Paris massacre with I’m a Celebrity … Get me Out of Here and Jeremy Clarkson’s racist ‘steak row’.

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Impressively, the ‘Newspaper of Year’ also manages to make it seem as if the Paris attacks are a direct response to the death of ‘Jihadi John’, a causal impossibility made real through an adroit use of imagery and narrativising language (‘Shooting & bombs after …’, ‘Wave of revenge terror.’). Simplicity sells: Clarkson’s a racist, and—’Nurse! The screens!’—I think I’ve come down with jungle fever.

In fact, I must have done, since the Sun helpfully diagnoses me with the selfsame malady.

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The Sun’s ‘new-look’ TV mag also features a ‘new-look’ Ant and Dec, the pair having lost their Crusoe-fros somewhere in transit. But at least they still sit atop the same pared-down narrative and image of atrocity. At least there’s still that.

Bizarrely, Ant and Dec don’t feature on the front page of the Times (which, incidentally, is another ‘Newspaper of the Year’), but we do instead get the happy news that The Great British Bake Off winner Nadiya Hussain has written some recipes in a 124-page food magazine.

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The winner of Bake Off, some dessert recipes and an unspeakable massacre in Paris: the spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down. It’s just so entirely bewildering.

Still, at least no one’s advertising luxury Cartier watches.

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Oh.

Really, though, it’s the Guardian itself that wins the postmodern collage bullshit award, with a front page of genuinely impressive scope and ambition.

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This is a concatenation of sentences that wouldn’t be out of place on The Day Today, and the distressing thing is that each of these sentences must have come about through a series of conscious editorial decisions. Someone somewhere in the Guardian head office decided to run the story of the Paris massacre alongside glimpses of an interview with Captain Mainwaring actor Toby Jones, a cookery article featuring (another) Bake Off star, Ruby Tandoh, and a lifestyle piece about living with big breasts. And the effect of this miscellany is just unspeakably strange.

Now, none of this is to say that newspaper front pages should simply and sombrely state the biggest news story of each day, and nor is it even to suggest that the Paris massacre is necessarily more ‘important’ that other mindless atrocities from around the world (many of which, of course, we never even hear of). But it is to note that somewhere in the journalistic ether there must be a critical tipping point of sorts, an impact-factor threshold where a story becomes bigger than the publication that delivers it, where an event trumps even formatting and the lure of advertising cash.

Inevitably, this threshold is culturally, politically and linguistically situated, and will change from country to country, newspaper to newspaper. The point at which a story sells newspapers regardless of associated content is never static. 9/11 crossed this threshold in the British press, as did 7/7. But for one reason or another, the Paris massacre failed to do so, and what we’re left with is an event of unimaginable horror presented cheek by jowl with bubblegum nonsense, and this feels like a deep cultural failing, a flattening of both atrocity and inanity into cut-and-paste, switchable images.

Or as Ivan Vladislavic phrases it better than I ever could do in his 1994 novel The Folly:

The box brought nothing but unrest and disorder, faction fights and massacres, even blood-baths, high pressure systems and cold fronts, situation comedies and real-life dramas, hijackings, coups, interviews with VIPs, royal weddings, exposés, scandals, scoops, conspicuous consumptions, white-collar crimes, blue-collar detergents, epidemics, economic indicators, peace talks, heart-warming instances of bravery and kindness to strangers, advertisements for dogfoods and requests for donations. Each new atrocity struck Mrs like a blow, and she thrashed about in the La-Z-Boy like a political prisoner.

And don’t forget: the new series of IACGMOOH starts Sunday November 15 at 9 pm.

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