Why the Y-factor is pants

A leaked BBC memo accused the 50 year-old Panorama programme of suffering the D factor – too distant, demanding, difficult and didactic. The report’s authors discuss giving the one-time jewel of current affairs a makeover, offering “truth and hope in a mad, confusing world”.

In a document laden with buzz words for the time-starved, choiceswamped, information-flooded era, their solution is to instil some X factor – increasing topical relevance by linking issues to EastEnders.

“The programme needs to become more accessible and enjoyable,” the report says.

The Guardian, which leaked the memo on Monday, headlined its piece “Time bomb”, claiming its content has ignited the row over public broadcasting.

As I read the plans to lop 15 minutes off the programme and turn it into a “touch-it, reach-it, feel-it” guide, I spotted a short in another paper saying the first Y-fronts went on display in Chicago exactly 70 years ago.

I mention the unmentionables because in my book it is not the D factor, or the X factor but the Y factor that really needs addressing for both broadcasters and print media.

RealitY and apathY.

John Humphrys denigrated the whole ethos of realitY TV in his MacTaggart lecture this year as “mindnumbing, witless vulgarity”.

The schedulers did not bother to respond much as they knew they had other earth-shattering plans to announce in Edinburgh – their big pushes for the coming year.

For the BBC it was out with reality – now comedY will be given top billing alongside news and current affairs.

Well that made me laugh for a start.

I really must remember to renew the licence fee tomorrow.

There was even more reason for a chuckle when Radio Four announced that its winner for the eighth deadly sin in a poll of their listeners was apathY. It does beg the question of why so many of the listeners actually bothered to vote.

But both stories beg much bigger questions for some newspapers. How much of the undoubted commercial success of some of those realitY shows was a direct result of the acres of free publicitY given to them as red-top editors fenced cheque to cheque to secure the “exclusives” of some pretty ordinary folk getting their 15 minutes of fame, and a little of today’s other great obsession, celebritY? Has the paucitY of qualitY TV had a direct effect on the readabilitY of newspapers? And how much apathY has it induced in those who were never hooked? As news editor of a number of titles, I invented my own way of answering the question most asked by young reporters who seemed to have no “instinct” and a zillion PRs who simply didn’t have a clue.

The question: what is a story? No PR will have read this far down the page so I can safely share an abridged version with you in return for 25 per cent of the proceeds when you re-use it for a 20-minute address to your local PR “brainsharing” convention – for a fee about twice your weekly salary.

The word “story” begins with ST.

The beST stories are those you can begin with words that end in ST. The firST, the higheST, the moST, the biggeST etc.

The least number of corollaries, the better the story, dependent on the weight of the subject matter. But of course it’s not always that simple.

As a freelance I had a friend who was obsessed with growing things to gigantic proportions and was in the Guiness Book of Records for the tallest sunflower, and quite a few other superlative plants or vegetables. He rang one night to explain he had grown the world’s biggest indoor cucumber.

“World’s Biggest” sounded exciting, but the corollary “indoor” immediately lessened my interest and even more so when he explained that outdoor cucumbers grow much bigger.

In the cucumber world – as well as today’s tabloids – it seems size does matter, but in the context of a story that extra word “indoor” diminished both the impact and my enthusiasm.

But he was a good contact so I resolved to see him anyway, only to find him heartbroken and his wife chastened and sullen.

It seems he had forgotten to tell his good lady I was coming and had placed his cherished specimen in the fridge for me to view when I arrived.

He only mentioned my visit over tea when his wife went as green as the world’s biggest indoor cucumber which she had just neatly circumcised into his salad.

Now that was a first, but I could never quite make him understand why it was a far better story than the mere fact he had grown it .

And it was true.

Which is why the Y at the end of the word story is also important. It is another reminder for what makes a good story: accuracY, relevancY and noveltY.

It is always the desire of editors to achieve the perfect mix of the three ingredients which make up the newspaper as a whole: information, education and entertainment.

The father of modern journalism, Lord Northcliffe, defined the role of the journalist in just three words: explain, simplify and clarify.

I can’t help wondering what he would have made of the present obsession to be first to reveal that some soap opera character – the character, not even the so-called celebrity who plays her – is pregnant/leaving the series/moving to Manchester/killed in a car crash/getting married/divorced/ abducted by aliens or perm any three of above.

What would he have made of the desire to publish and be damned the name of the latest evictee from the Big Brother house and then because of this all-consuming desire to be first with such a startling revelation – actually get the wrong one? When those first Y-fronts were placed in a shop window in the Windy City there was such a public outcry and outpouring of mortified morality they had to be relegated to the modesty shelf behind the counter.

Imagine what effect many of today’s newspapers would have had if they could have been published in the Thirties. “Something for the weekend, Sir?” from your barber might have got you a red-top or two wrapped inside a packet of Durex.

Some of today’s newspaper editors may even now be wondering what these apparent back-to-reality moves of the TV folk might mean for them and their readers.

The odd thing is that there was a media outcry when Panorama itself – that window on the world -tried to tackle the “Reality TV Phenomenon” as a story a few years ago.

It is certainly a product of our times, but little to do with reality.

Perhaps it will only dawn on the programme makers when the first heartbroken wannabee “goes for a walk in the woods” after being cruelly confronted with the lack of “star quality”.

Imagine the headlines then.

Perhaps there might just be a lesson for the papers and the Panorama team in the enduring success of Y-fronts and how little they have really changed in the past 70 years.

They still do the job they were designed to do. They are reliable, informative, accessible and a gateway to infinite entertainment. And at least, in reality, they are actually meant to be full of bollocks.

Charles Garside is consultant managing editor of the Daily Mail. He was editor-inchief of The European and deputy editor of the Sunday Express. He has also been an executive on the London Evening News, The Sun, The Evening Standard and The Times.  He owns Cumbria’s Miller Howe Hotel.

Next week: Alison Hastings

by Charles Garside

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