Readers Prefer a Dash Of Spice

We may like to think that we moderns brought the world its twittering classes and face to face gossip exchanges, but the fact is both classes were on the scene and active millenniums ago.

Their range wasn’t as great as it is today, but the format was identical and a few hundred kilometers north of its now capital city of Victoria native nations of Nootka Sound used it to keep up to date on events.

It was in Nuu-chah-nulth territory where long-distance travelers and traders were welcomed with a traditional feast at which they were expected to repay their hosts with news of other places. They were expected to be truthful when they reported to local chiefs stories of victory or defeat in battles witnessed in their travels; of famines survived or record harvests shared.

And when left to continue their travels or go home, they were loaded with gifts of food in the hope that the storytellers would twitter about them favourably.

In his classic book, A History of News” Mitchell Stephens tells us the Nootka chiefs were not above a little salacious storytelling every now and then. One such story involved  “a suitor who tumbled into a barrel of rainwater as he was sneaking out the window of his lover’s house.” Once twittered at a lodge campfire, the story took wings and “spread like wildfire up and down the coast.”

Today it would be proudly praised as a top story “going viral.” Readers still prefer news stories with a little sex and a dash of violence, reporters prefer writing them and publishers know what their readers prefer.

The age of twittering storytellers eventually faded as society recognized that a twice-told tale could become slightly different in its second telling and unrecognizable in its third and fourth. Some of today’s reader will remember the old campfire game where we sat in a circle our leader would whisper a sentence in an ear which would then be passed along to whispered completion. The final recipient would then stand and recite what he heard whispered and the leader would read out what had actually been said at the start of the game.

It was never the same story.

In Europe, coffee table twittering and chatter lasted for centuries before being replaced by more stable print and a vastly wider audience. Unfortunately, a wider audience has never automatically guaranteed a more honest product. Mitchell Stephens skillful autopsy of print-press, its triumphs, and its failures should be a must read for all who wish to ply the trade of journalism, snipe from the sidelines with a twittering load of misleading grapeshot – or just happily pay a weekly fee to read the inane posing as news.

“A History of News” was first published in 1988. It could be hard to find but will be worth the search if you are successful. But be warned it could be a painful journey as Stephens forces us to understand that while we lamented much of the “news content” presented in our newspapers even as they went into their continuing death spiral, it was “content” readers preferred.

In the last few lines of his book Stephens’ writes about the expanding power of huge companies building ever larger data banks. He writes : “….no matter how sophisticated news organs become, unless human beings are also re-wired, they are likely to continue to satisfy their desire to remain aware with a spicy, hastily prepared mix of the portentous and the anomolous similar to that with which they have satisfied that desire for the past few thousand years.”






  1. I have long been guided by Lord Northcliffe’s definition: “News is what somebody, somewhere wants to suppress. All the rest is advertising.”

  2. Once again you don’t disappoint us in your ability to relate the foibles of past characters to the present communicators of news. Thanks

  3. Jim, just by chance you missed this.

    On November 7th, 1920, in strictest secrecy, four unidentified British bodies were exhumed from temporary battlefield cemeteries at Ypres, Arras, the Asine and the Somme. None of the soldiers who did the digging were told why. The bodies were taken by field ambulance to GHQ at St-Pol-Sur-Ter Noise. Once there, the bodies were draped with the union flag. Sentries were posted and Brigadier-General Wyatt and a Colonel Gell selected one body at random. The other three were reburied. A French Honour Guard was selected and stood by the coffin overnight of the chosen soldier overnight.
    On the morning of the 8th November, a specially designed coffin made of oak from the grounds of Hampton Court arrived and the Unknown Warrior was placed inside. On top was placed a crusaders sword and a shield on which was inscribed: “A British Warrior who fell in the GREAT WAR 1914-1918 for King and Country”.

    On the 9th of November, the Unknown Warrior was taken by horse-drawn carriage through Guards of Honour and the sound of tolling bells and bugle calls to the quayside. There, he was saluted by Marechal Foche and loaded onto HMS Vernon bound for Dover. The coffin stood on the deck covered in wreaths, surrounded by the French Honour Guard.
    Upon arrival at Dover, the Unknown Warrior was met with a nineteen gun salute – something that was normally only reserved for Field Marshals.

    A special train had been arranged and he was then conveyed to Victoria Station, London. He remained there overnight, and, on the morning of the 11th of November, he was finally taken to Westminster Abbey.

    The idea of the unknown warrior was thought of by a Padre called David Railton who had served on the front line during the Great War the union flag he had used as an altar cloth whilst at the front, was the one that had been draped over the coffin. It was his intention that all of the relatives of the 517,773 combatants whose bodies had not been identified could believe that the Unknown Warrior could very well be their lost husband, father, brother or son…

    THIS is the reason we wear poppies. We do not glorify war. We remember – with humility – the great and the ultimate sacrifices that were made, not just in this war, but in every war and conflict where our service personnel have fought – to ensure the liberty and freedoms that we now take for granted.

    Every year, on the 11th of November, we remember the Unknown Warrior. At the going down of the sun, and in the morning, we will remember them.

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