I read the news today, oh boy

I almost started reading something in the local newspaper today. Thankfully I saw an obvious trigger word in the headline and stopped, but not before gleefully spotting a new weekly example of government sock-puppetry.

My wife always wonders how I can scan such papers in 30 seconds flat, yet stay aware – or even ahead of – local news. There is no great mystery. I used to produce these things, so I know how content is grouped, e.g. which is advertorial produced to get a key advertiser in, the weekly polyfilla produced for free by local bores and hobbyists, and so on.

The business news is never worth reading. The nearest you get to objective business information is in statutory filings to government bodies, and the real gossip gets passed from drunk to drunk at corporate benders. Anything you read in print is supplied by company PR and marketing staff, and is paid for by advertising which will appear at another date on another page.

But the latest trend in pointless page filling is the governmental sock puppet. This is the semi-independent or NGO type of tub-thumper – on paper a charity or pressure group, in reality cosy arrangements between under-employed career naggers and ex-colleagues in the civil service who have not yet joined them.

The problem for governments is that the public (quite fairly) assumes that a politician whose lips move is lying, and that civil servants with any expertise in the matters they deal with they would be snapped up by the private sector. So anything in the press directly attributed to a politician or civil servant is dismissed as twaddle or goes unread.

The tragedy is that folk who fill such government posts – and their old college chums – sincerely believe that they know what is best for us and have a duty to bend us to their will. Given half a chance, they would do this at gunpoint, but in the 21st century they have a new approach.

The PR world floods women’s ‘lifestyle’ pages with free copy which vaguely quotes ‘scientific studies’ before working in casual references to a new diet or make-up. In similar vein, governments wanting to put through unpopular law changes need to make it look as if experts or the general public are demanding them, as any change in our habits openly suggested by government arouses suspicion or anger. Key problem areas include health, transport and the environment.

The trick (known in the trade as ‘astroturfing’) is to make it look as if a grassroots pressure group or health professionals are making reasonable demands to government, who bow to common sense. In reality, civil servants will have head-hunted likely prodnose careerists and helped set up bogus public health bodies or pressure groups. These only seem to want what the civil servants have decided to give us; what a coincidence. In turn, understaffed local or specialist media are grateful when a nominally knowledgeable trainspotter offers them regular free material … and so it goes on.

But compared to the climate-change deniers, religious oddbods and other frighteningly small-minded regulars on the local paper letters page, semi-pro busybodies are hardly a major social problem. Life is short, so I just snigger and move on to something more interesting. Once spotted, it is possible to bypass their drivel in the same way that I have never acted on those flashy half page adverts which fill the outer columns of any newspaper.

One day though, I would really like to find some news or interesting comment in my local paper.

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