It feels odd to start a column having failed to persuade oneself that what one proposes is sensible. My problem is this: whenever I put the thoughts that follow to friends whose judgment I respect, they talk me out of my conclusion. Convinced by their counter-arguments, I banish the idea.
Then I wake up in the small hours — and the idea’s back.
It is this: that should the civil disorder we saw a week ago turn into something more chronic than the chip-pan fire we’ve just experienced, then those who shape Britain’s newspapers, television and radio ought to try — at least to try — to reach some sort of informal sector-wide consensus on a set of voluntary guidelines, necessarily imprecise, on how to report events honestly, factually and comprehensively, in ways less likely to sensationalise or amplify the drama.
On the night of Monday 8 August, with the rioting at its worst, all the rolling TV news channels backed their reports, which they kept repeating, with what appeared to be looped videotape of burning buildings. So many sirens were coming out of people’s TV and radio sets that it was hard to know whether the emergency was on the airwaves or in the street outside one’s flat. After that, billowing smoke and orange flames became the media wallpaper of our week; and wailing police sirens the backing track.
Afterwards, the newspapers went wild — led, curiously, by the highbrow press, not the red-tops and not the Daily Mail. My own paper, the Times, reported the first night when it seemed that order had been restored in London with a headline beginning ‘London simmers’. The Guardian that Saturday, in an edition that struck me as little short of demented, appeared to devote almost the whole paper to riot coverage.