Friday, 29 May 2009

Dealing with the media

Here’s a question for you about two females who have been in the news this week. The first is the so-called Messel Lemur, a stunningly well preserved early primate about 48 million years old found in the oil shale of Messel, Germany. The second is Susan Boyle, the 48-year-old unknown Scots singer sometimes described as ‘chubby’ or ‘dowdy’, who created something of a national and international sensation in the Britain’s Got Talent television program. What links the two? There are of course any number of uncharitable answers to this involving perhaps the number ‘48’, ‘preservation’, ‘hair’ and ‘being female’. The real answer is that both raise interesting questions to do with the media.

Let us consider first, the older of our two females. Three things are noteworthy. First of all, the Lemur (or proto-Lemur) was immediately proclaimed to be a ‘Missing Link’ and our great, great grandmother umpteen times removed. Whether or not this is the case is not my point here; the fact is it that it was an inevitable but clever piece of marketing. As a lemur, pure and simple, no one would care. I can’t resist using the British slang expression “no one would give a monkey’s”. (Please don’t look up the origin of this: although the expression itself is reasonably harmless, its origin is unspeakably rude.) However, rebrand it as ‘a missing link’ and the press will be banging on the door.

The second smart trick was to give the creature (technically Darwinius masillae) the cosy little name ‘Ida’. My suspicion is that this is a tradition that goes back to 1974 when ‘Lucy’, more prosaically known as Australopithecus afarensis, was discovered in Ethiopia and has been a big hit ever since. So that was another nice marketing touch. A third is more subtle. In a rather curious (and possibly unprecedented) way, no sooner had news of Ida been announced in the scientific press when it was revealed that the BBC would be showing a programme on her the following day narrated by no less than the Blessed Monarch of Natural History, David Attenborough. This strikes me as very curious. The normal pattern in science (and I remind you I do know a little of what I am talking about here), is to publish the data and then wait for speculation, comment and criticism. In theory, once the dust has settled there will be something like a scientific consensus and this the point at which the press ought to be involved. Given the lead time to produce a TV programme suggests that the scientific team had been working closely with the BBC right from the start. I’m not suggesting there is anything wrong in what has been done: it’s just that this smacks of the press and science being a little too closely linked. That’s a worrying trend.

With Susan Boyle – who went from utter unknown to international star within days – things are very interesting and I refer you to the Wikipedia section on her entry entitled ‘Social Analysis’. With nothing else to talk about apart from the biggest political scandal for several hundred years (that was irony) the popular press has been building up Ms Boyle to an astonishing degree. Yet those that live by the press can also die by it and this week Ms Boyle has made the headlines of the wrong sort for lashing out at people with a pretty foul-mouthed tirade. The papers are beginning to turn on her.

The fact of the matter is that the media has a ravenous and insatiable appetite for novelty and sensation and we need to keep them at a distance. There is an ancient* Russian proverb which says ‘However cold you are, it is not a good idea to share your bed with wolves.’

*If you cannot find it in the standard dictionary of Russian Aphorisms don’t worry: I’ve just invented it.