The editor of The Bulletin, Garry Linnell,
used his editorial this week to, rather truculently, give “Lesson One” in what
makes news because “enough of you nosey parkers have been raising the question
out there.” He reflects on why the Tasmanian miners are a media circus, while
nobody is interested in the survival story of the Torres Strait islanders.
“Bottom line: more are curious about the miners than the seafarers,” he says.

As an argument from an editor, it’s
circular, self-fulfilling and self-justifying. The Bulletin‘s front page yarn is on the miners. But Linnell is an
intelligent man, and is also engagingly frank about the unfair and simplistic
ways in which news operates.

Meanwhile as though to illustrate his points,
the Herald-Sun has splashed with a
Russell Robinson scoop about Rex Hunt paying for sex. The Age and Sydney Morning Herald have done a catch-up on the Hunt story above the fold, while The Age has placed a truly important
exclusive
(“US sent ‘please explain’ to Downer over China comments”),
right at the bottom of the front page.

The Rex Hunt yarn is a legitimate news
story, and in its way important. He is a significant public figure who has made
a point of claiming to be a good, faithful husband. He has been lying. We
deserve not to be lied to.

But let’s not pretend this story will
change the world. Rather it is part of the constant morality play which is the
function of celebrity. The meaning of the story – heroes have clay feet – is
familiar to us all.

Likewise the Tasmanian miners. While their
survival is miraculous we all are familiar with the elements. Disaster. No
hope. Hope. Heroism. Ordinary people lifted above and beyond themselves. Catharsis.
These have been elements in drama since Homer (the author of the Iliad, not
Homer Simpson, although both are relevant). Resurrection from a tomb of stone –
well, that’s familiar too.

The thing Linnell doesn’t say is that
sometimes news is paradoxical. It is news because it isn’t news. The things
that interest us most are those that surprise us least. “News sense” is
sometimes little more than pattern recognition. Telling archetypal stories has
been the function of yarn spinners since the dawn of time. It is one of the
things that makes us who we are, and it is a deeply conservative thing to do.

Not that anyone will ever teach that as
Lesson One in journalism school. It’s too humbling.

Peter Fray

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