By Kenneth Roy
Asked why a dead person who did not seem particularly significant had received so much favourable press attention, Alan Bennett replied: ‘Because he was a journalist’. Although I remember reading this somewhere, I checked the usual sources last night and failed to unearth the quote. It is possible that I just imagined Alan Bennett said it; or feel that he ought to have said it.
It’s true, anyway. We are very good at looking after our own: telly people in particular. The self-regard of the media is almost daily in evidence. In the most spectacular recent case, the wondrously named David Miranda was held at an airport under anti-terrorism laws for the maximum nine hours. Only later did it emerge that Mr Miranda was carrying masses of highly sensitive documents, some from the notoriously leaky Edward Snowden. Perhaps the police would have been failing in their duty if they had not questioned Mr Miranda, though nine hours was pushing it. They could have got the name of his granny in less than eight.
But it was not the holding of Mr Miranda that guaranteed the mass coverage. It was the identity of his partner, a Guardian journalist. The affair quickly turned into a celebrity circus, complete with consoling hugs, even if the ‘deepening crisis’ advertised by the newspaper felt like a slightly manufactured one. The crisis is now so deep that it has disappeared from public view. That was last week’s deepening crisis. Or maybe it was the week before.
It has been succeeded by a genuine deepening crisis, the Syrian one. Children being gassed in their thousands – the exact figure we must leave to John Kerry’s news management machine – certainly felt more important than any temporary inconvenience endured by David Miranda. But media interest in the fate of the children of Syria only served to confirm the dictum of Alastair Campbell, last cited in this column as recently as last Thursday, that there is a finite cycle to any story, no matter how seemingly important. Mr Campbell put it at less than a fortnight. Even he might have been surprised that the House of Commons vote on Syria stayed at the top of the news agenda for only two days.
On Sunday it was replaced by something much more diverting: the death of a media personality. By the late afternoon Syria had been relegated to that package known as ‘other news’ and was actually being described as such on BBC News 24.
Sir David Frost’s popping of clogs before or during a speech on board a Cunard liner bound for the Meditteranean – the setting of his demise could not have been more appropriate – so excited his former employer, to say nothing of Sky, ITN, Uncle Tom Digital and all, that everything else was suddenly incidental.
One could only gaze in wonder at the banks of material on the BBC’s news website:
‘A look back at Sir David Frost’s life’
‘In pictures: Frost’s 50 year career’
‘Breakfast with Frost highlights’
‘Tributes to fearsome interviewer’
‘Frost editor pays tribute’
‘Loyd Grossman tribute to Frost’
‘Greatest broadcaster in British history’
From this tribute band, I decided in accordance with normal practice to give Mr Grossman a miss and skipped to the most ludicrous of the many teasing tag-lines: the notion that Frostie of all people was the greatest broadcaster in British history. Greater than Robin Day, the sharpest interviewer in the business? Greater than the urbane and scholarly Robert Kee? Greater than the founder of current affairs television, Richard Dimbleby? The copyright holder of this inanity was none other than Andrew Marr, who replaced Frost on the Sunday morning sofa and whose return to that sofa was itself considered an item of ‘news’ by the BBC alongside the ‘other news’ of Syria.
There was only one tribute more risible than Andrew Marr’s: that of Alastair Campbell’s former boss Tony Blair, who declared that ‘being interviewed by David was always a pleasure’. Of course it was. We have here the nature of the problem. Frost, who began his career in the same stable as Alan Bennett, a satirist and critic of the establishment, smartly morphed into a close friend of his one-time targets, the rich and powerful, people not unlike Mr Blair. He was reduced to writing books about multi-millionaires and succeeded in becoming one himself, partly through his business deal with the hideous Richard Nixon. Yet the tribute from our Middle East peace envoy was reported without irony; no one thought that it might cast doubt on the deceased’s credentials as a ‘fearsome’ interviewer.
By the end, Sir David’s contacts guaranteed him a steady procession of ageing potentates for his interview slot on Al Jazeera in which the presenter, his speech disconcertingly slurred, always seemed on the matiest terms with his subjects and somehow grander than most of them. He may not have ‘changed British broadcasting’ as his admirers liked to imagine, but few have been more successful at transforming themselves.
It is tempting to dismiss the instant hagiographies of David Frost as of marginal significance; just another example of the media’s self-delusion. But the timing on this occasion was dire and the choice of language crass. Only the BBC could describe the agonies of Syria and its people, and the clumsy attempts of Western democracies to help them, as ‘other news’ last weekend of all weekends. The episode was symptomatic in a small way of much greater failures of judgement and language – but then we knew that already.
Courtesy of Kenneth Roy and the Scottish Review