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Sunday 20 August 2017

A Short note to 'generation me': The world spins, but not around you

Commentators should learn that a good story, well told, will always make for the best, most relevant kind of reportage

Gay Byrne's firm's profits have exceed half a million euro
Gay Byrne's firm's profits have exceed half a million euro

Watching Gay Byrne in a studio at the height of his radio fame, his stillness as he listened to his interviewees was noticeable. He wasn't just listening with his ears or even his brain, his whole body was directed at the interviewee.

Nothing outside the small studio mattered more than the guests in front of him. His oft repeated dictum, "the best radio or TV is an ordinary person's story well-told", was old-fashioned broadcasting wisdom at its best.

People's lives are often more interesting and complicated than we imagine them to be. And Byrne knew that.

Conversely, his attitude to the famous was merciless. If told that Brad Pitt had been booked for a show, his first question would probably have been "what's he going to talk about, you know actors can be dreadfully boring".

Listening

The show was always bigger than the sum of its parts, because its presenter was constantly wondering what the people listening would make of it all, would they stay in their cars or kitchens to hear what happened next, or would they switch off in their droves.

For his modern counterparts on the other hand, booking 'a celeb' is as much about the exchange of status as the entertainment value.

They glow in the shared beam of their interviewee's fame.

The chumminess does not make for riveting television but it is not meant to. Just by being on the couch, the celebrity acknowledges the importance of the presenter, and his or her ego is thereby stoked.

But watch those same presenters' eyes glaze over conversely as a representative of the 'great unwashed' makes his or her way on to the running order. They cannot quite hide their boredom or contempt. The interview becomes formulaic, a questions-by-numbers dreariness sets in.

It's not just an Irish phenomenon, British and US critics have lamented both the rise of the soft-pedal celebrity interview and confessional journalism as being part of the same malaise.

The truth is that high-profile hacks and presenters these days often move in the same circle as the people they are supposedly monitoring. Their reluctance to probe is not just a part of the downside of access, they believe that both they and their guests are on the same treadmill of fame. So a type of Stockholm syndrome sets it.

Even in the world of supposedly serious journalism there has been a move to have the correspondent and his or her discomfort become the centre of reports. Back in 2010 the American Society of Professional Journalists had to advise those journalists covering the disaster in Haiti to avoid "injecting oneself into the story". It's a moot point.

Surrounded by people who have lost their homes, do we really want to know how the reporter is coping, or even feeling?

Pseudo-fame

For others the benefit of a byline earns a type of pseudo-fame. The interview turns into an analysis of the interviewer's reactions to the celebrated one, as opposed to a straight question and answer session.

Reminiscing recently with a former colleague about a news editor who was legendary in his passion for a story, his most cutting put-down was "nobody is interested in you", a piece of sage advice that would these days be discounted by some practitioners of reportage.

One could blame the columnist-narrator of Sex and the City, Carrie Bradshaw, for spawning a whole swathe of 'me-me-me' journalism among younger women in particular, but online trends have also cemented its popularity across both sexes.

Though she attracted the ire of some media analysts, US writer and journalism lecturer Susan Shapiro offers a different perspective on the reporter being the story. Her signature class assignment, 'the humiliation essay', involves getting her students to write three pages confessing their most humiliating secret.

Its success, she argues, is based on the fact that her charges want to publish essays and memoirs.

Having written for some of the top media outlets in the US, Shapiro's books have been hugely successful.

This in part due to the subject matter, immortal lines such as "In December my husband stopped screwing me" - the opening sentence of her second memoir - was a follow on to her first sex-drugs- and-marriage memoir Five Men Who Broke My Heart.

Telling perfect strangers every detail of your life, your dating exploits, what your parents think of you, and you of them, may be great for getting a higher profile, but it takes a particular talent to turn it into a career. Less-gifted writers may have to pimp out their partners, children and friends for column inches.

"She'll be writing about the dog next," a senior reporter once quipped about an over-prolific female columnist.

His words proved prophetic as a week later, the scribes pooch took centre stage. As celebrity itself becomes devalued brand-building is a sine qua non of having any kind of media profile and sharing every detail of your life with others is almost a given.

The rather vain hack-about-town from a less starry era who had the cruel sobriquet 'the ego has landed' applied to him by his irate colleagues would these days have his own show, a couple of books under his belt, and a hefty bank balance.

In a small country where fame is easily garnered there is, however, a thin line between getting attention for your talent, and turning into that dreaded childhood insult, 'the notice-box'.

Mistaking who is more interesting, you or the people you are writing about or interviewing, can have unintended consequences.

Loving the sound of your own voice while not allowing your interviewee air-space is not just a huge turn-off, it negates the very reason you achieved fame in the first place.

Those at the top remain there because a wise inner voice tells them: "It's not all about you."

Similarly, if you think that you are more interesting than the story you are covering, then it's likely that you have become another victim of the age of narcissism. Because self-obsession is everywhere, creeping from the world of celebrity and taking up residence in more ordinary environs, authenticity is harder and harder to achieve.

As UK-based media expert Paul Bradshaw advised his fellow writers: "We need to put people before stories, and get over our egos."

Lampooned

Journalist-turned-television host Piers Morgan wrote an acerbic and funny biography of his time as a tabloid editor in the UK. Then he moved Stateside and morphed into one of the very people he had so lovingly lampooned.

Columnist Jeremy Clarkson saw no irony in his or his fellow Top Gear presenters hiding under a researcher's bed when angry Argentines stormed their hotel recently. The stars flew out to safety, the crew stayed behind with the cars and equipment, and faced the wrath of the mob. Clarkson's story, however, was the one to gain the headlines.

But he and Morgan are not alone. From the political analyst who becomes more pompous than the ministers he is covering to the showbiz hack who hangs out with his or her famous pals, the reporter who becomes part of the story is not an isolated case.

Like the people who update Facebook, Twitter and Instagram with every detail of their lives, no one is immune from a self-esteem overload, not even the supposed chroniclers of the age. We have all become the stars in our own lives.

The dilemma arises when, if everyone becomes famous for 15 minutes, how do we distinguish the everyday from the truly interesting? A friend looking through family albums to find a photograph of herself as a child found that there were few if any available. It's not that she wasn't loved, but as one of a number of children in a large family, the camera had long been put away after she came along. Her children, by contrast, have had every moment of their lives recorded. It's a sobering thought that the average young Irish person will soon have more photos of themselves on file than world leaders of an earlier era.

But if taking constant self-portraits is the outward manifestation of more narcissistic times, then don't blame the young, they are merely 'acting out' what the grown-ups do.

Think instead of the girl I spotted some weeks ago sitting on the ground outside a city centre shop looking so distraught that it would have taken a heart of stone to ignore her plight.

Her face was screwed up in pain, her lips quivered. Luckily, just before asking: "Are you ok?" I spotted the phone which had been hidden by a rather large handbag. Far from being ill, heart-broken, or a teen runaway, she was merely taking 'selfies', practicing various woebegone looks as she did so.

A career in media or show-biz beckons…

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