News, ritual and inflatable unicorns.
A few months ago I found myself on the the Isle of Man for my brother’s stag do. The stag party had ended up in the seaside town of Port Erin and had barrelled into a pub with my brother in tow, dressed in an inflatable unicorn suit.
As I loitered at the bar an older lady (it turned out she was in her early 80’s) called me over. “What’s going on?” she asked. I explained my brother was getting married and this was his stag party. “Oh. We never did anything like this in my day!”.
We ended up chatting for the 40 minutes or so it took to get drinks and for my brother to persuade the clientele to do a conga around the bar with him.
She’d lived on the island for longer than she hadn’t, moving there with her first husband. That marriage had ended and she’d found herself a single mother in a time and place that still wasn’t very forgiving of that kind of thing - the island has had its fair share of social right angles. She’d raised three kids who now lived on ‘the mainland’, all with high-power jobs and families. “They’re too busy with their own lives”, she says. So she now lives in a care home.
The visit to the pub was one of her regular “escape attempts”. She packs herself, a newspaper and her walking frame in to a taxi and has a day out. Today was a roast lunch, half of something and a dish of slowly melting ice-cream.
We chatted about her life. She still tries to get out to help kids with their reading in school. Her niece, who does make the effort to come over to see her, and her love of radio. Radio 4 in particular. “But I hate that John Humprys!” she says emphatically. “I’m so glad he’s going”
By this time, my brother/inflatable unicorn was being ushered out to the next pub. So I said goodbye. She made me promise that I’d never miss a chance to do something I loved in my life and I made her promise she’d continue her escape attempts and be a cause of constant exasperation to children. And we agreed that on the day John Humphrys retired, we’d think of each other.
So, I’m listening to Radio4’s today programme usher Humphrys out of the door and preparing to welcome this years new recruits to my MA Multimedia Journalism. As promised, I’m thinking of that conversation I had in a pub in Port Erin.
We live in a world where social media is a habit, even an addiction. But we can easily forget how news and journalism is for so many a ritual. The radio is always on in the background. We still sit down to watch the news; we walk for the newspaper everyday. We sit in bed with the weekend editions spread around us. We still do those things and when we don't I think we miss those things on a more fundamental level. More than the constant itch of FOMO.
Some would argue that rituals are the problem in journalism. The way we did things in the past is not how things are done now. They might be right. But the rituals and those that embody them persist.
I think I'd argue that it's institutions that are the problem not the rituals. Journalism regularly confuses the way it does things with the way it should be done. When we get complacent about that we end up making really bad decisions, decisions that will dog those that come next long after the worst of those institutions have moved on.