Geoff Tennant - Promoting access to mathematics for all
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27/8/18: a tour round some UK newspapers

Some years ago I set myself a little project comparing the way two newspapers, 'The Guardian' and 'The Sun', handled education news stories over the course of a month.  I decided to do this some time in advance, and considered that the single best month would be September as schools go back for the new school year.

Everything was fine initially, with education stories appearing in both papers at the rate of 2 or 3 a day.  But the year I was doing this was 2001 and, as anybody old enough to remember knows only too well, on the 11th September 2001 an atrocity occurred which completely dominated newspapers for some considerable time afterwards.  Although, from the point of view of my project, even that was interesting, 'The Guardian' started publishing education stories after 3 days, albeit on page 15 rather than page 4, whereas 'The Sun' didn't publish any education stories for more than a week afterwards.

So, I've retained a passing interest in newspapers, with vouchers for 'The Times' everyday giving a substantial discount and occasionally glancing at others papers, when waiting for hair cuts and this kind of thing.

The reason newspapers are on my mind is because I went away for a week last week, and was nearly at my destination before I realised that I'd left my 'Times' vouchers behind.  So, what to do?  Not keen to buy the 'Times' without the vouchers, that would be equivalent of paying for the thing twice.  I considered taking a week off from reading papers but decided against that, I do like being able to read papers when away at a more leisurely pace than normal.

So what I decided to do was to buy a different paper each day.  So this was, the 'i', The Guardian, The Telegraph, the Daily Mirror, The Daily Mail and The Sun - by which time I was back and so able to have the Times as well.

Before going any further, a quick note about UK newspapers which may or may not be the case in other countries.  Very roughly speaking, newspapers are either 'tabloids' or 'broadsheets'.  This used to refer to the physical size of the papers, with broadsheets being much bigger, but this is no longer the case, only 'The Telegraph' still retains the larger size.  Tabloids are considerably cheaper - about half the price - and have much higher readership figures, and give, I think it is fair to say, a lighter read than the broadsheets.  I suspect that many people who read broadsheets would only very rarely glance at a tabloid with possibly a bit of snobbery going on here.

So, what were my impressions over the week?  One noticeable thing is the extent to which tabloids tell the reader what to think.  So, for example, the editorial in the Sun on Saturday started, "Racist Corbyn.  Corbyn's defenders are out of excuses.  The wretche man is racist against Jews and that's that."  Although, having been following this story, the truth is, I think, much more nuanced than that.  Yes, Corbyn when a backbench MP not dreaming he was to become Labour party leader said things which passed unnoticed at the time which a high profile figure would not say.  But the issue, as far as I can make out, is: where does anti-Semitism end and robust, legitimate criticism of Israel's actions against Palestinians begin?  But the Sun painted things very much in black and white, to what extent, I wonder, does its readership accept these opinions as facts?

Alongside this the political bias of papers is much more pronounced in the tabloids, with views on Brexit very clear, with Thursday's Daily Mail proclaiming "Why we won't starve... planes will take off, and no there won't be riots in the streets.... no deal myths debunked."

The tabloids are much more likely, it would appear, to print articles of human interest and about celebrities.  One which puzzled me rather was in Fridays' 'Daily Express', a full page story on page 3 headed, "It's the Queen's first (Wendy) house" about a 2/3 size play house the Queen was given when she was 6 back in 1932, and was restored in 2012.  I read the story several times trying to work out why it qualified as news and drew a complete blank.  Perhaps the biggest giveaway was the line, "Over the years, the Queen's children have also played in the Wend house and, more recently, her grandchildren."  Really?  Her grandchildren?  Surely this should be her great grandchildren, I can't image that William, Harry et al. would be playing in it now?  I can't decide whether it's an honest mistake or whether the piece was unthinkingly dragged out of the archives and printed to fill up space.

Two other stories attracted my attention over the week, both from Thursday's Daily Mail. One was headed 'Fury as alcohol firms cash in on heavy drinkers', and as far as I can make out the story can be summarised like this: the more you drink, the more money you spend on alcohol.  Which, again, wouldn't qualify as news would it?  Surely this is pretty obviously true?  There is a bit of a hint that the alcohol companies should do more to deter heavy drinking, but I would tend to the view that this is one of the reasons why we have a Government, you can't reasonably expect commercial companies willingly to take steps t curtail their own profits.

The other was 'Corbyn declares class war on BBC', about a proposal to insist that the BBC publish figures on the social class of different grades of employee.  But it doesn't seem to have occurred to anyone writing the story that a pretty major issue is how social class is defined for these purposes.  One commonly used definition is by one's occupation using classifications devised by the Registrar General - but if this is used the story becomes meaningless, with headlines coming like, "100% of all cleaners at the BBC are working class."  Is it by their parents?  If so, isn't this getting a little intrusive?  Of course, one might consider that this is a criticism of the proposal rather than its reporting, but the story does seem to leave some pretty major questions unanswered.

So, back now, reunited with my 'Times' vouchers.  Am I tempted to change?  The one paper which I would consider is the 'i', which is a cut down successor to the 'Independent' newspaper which has the price and length of tabloids but does seem to report news more dispassionately than the tabloids.  But I would encourage all my readers, at least occasionally, to read news outlets beyond those to which we have become accustomed, it's important to know what is being said.  Don't believe everything in newspapers, we are told - but I strongly suspect that in general we do.....

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