Friday, December 05, 2008
The Shannon Matthews case - deftly summarised by Andrew Norfolk - was very 'fish and chippy'. This is an expression Fleet Street newsdesks once used. It meant that a story was sordid and low life. They didn't say this out of snobbery, they said it because such stories should not be given too much prominence - or reported at all - because they were simply grim and added nothing to human wisdom. That's all changed, of course, fish and chippiness is now the media's default mode. TV news bulletins at 6pm blithely detail crimes that were once never discussed and the newspapers report Matthews-like cases in frenetic and slavering detail. The inevitable 'public interest' line has emerged - was this another social services cock-up? - so the fish and chips are now flavoured with the salt and vinegar of social concern. Well, yes, but anybody who thinks that's why the media was reporting this in such detail is, of course, naive. But why do we report it? Because, I suppose, it's exciting in a ghoulish, lurid way and because it makes people feel that, however bad they are, they're not this bad. But there's another aspect to the meaning of 'fish and chippy'. It also means routine, it contains within it the wisdom that, however good our social services, however concerned out society, children will continue to be abducted, abused and exploited, probably at more or less the same rate as they have been throughout history. It may seem a terrible thing to say but child abuse is a banality, an evil banality certainly, but a banality nonetheless. Maybe we can do a more now to limit the damage, and so we should, but I doubt that we can do much. These stories are blank walls on which we scribble our fantasies and our need for moral sustenance. Perhaps they should be put back in the file labelled 'too fish and chippy'.
Posted by Bryan Appleyard at 6:50 am