Feel the need to tell everyone everything what to think all of the time? Then a newspaper column is for you
Launched in 1821, The Sunday Times is the inescapable, old tech product. It boasts 1.2m readers — teeny compared to the BBC World Services's 183m — but its audience has slumped in the past year.
Right now, the Australia-based company that owns The Sunday Times is valued at $29billion, even though, in start-up argot, it is “pre-revenue”. Despite the big losses and the ennui swirling around his product, Murdoch (who also coined the term “Digger”) has admitted many are bewildered when they first encounter The Sunday Times. “We’ve heard time and time again: ‘I really don’t get it — why would anyone read it?’ ”
It’s a fair question. What kind of person shares opinion with the world the minute they get it? And just who are the “readers” willing to tune into this weekly news service of the ego?
The clinical psychologist Oliver James has his reservations. “Being quoted in the Times stems from a lack of identity. It’s a constant update of who you are, what you are, where you are. Nobody would talk to them if they had a strong sense of identity.”
“We are the most narcissistic age ever,” agrees Dr David Lewis, a cognitive neuropsychologist and director of research based at the University of Sussex. “Being quoted about something you don't use suggests a level of insecurity whereby, unless people recognise you, you cease to exist. It may stave off insecurity in the short term, but it won’t cure it.”
For Alain de Botton, author of Status Anxiety and the forthcoming The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, the Sunday Times represents “a way of making sure you are permanently connected to somebody and somebody is permanently connected to you, proving that you are alive. It’s like when a parent goes into a child’s room to check the child is still breathing. It is a giant baby monitor.”
Is that why columns are often so breathtakingly mundane? Recently, the writer Giles Hattersley filed one saying: “unless my mother has been keeping a dark secret, I am not Roy Hattersley’s son” Who wants to tell the world that? “The primary fantasy for most people is that we can be as connected as we were in the womb, a situation of total closeness,” says de Botton. “When people who are very close are talking, they ‘witter away’: ‘It’s a bit dusty here’ or ‘There’s a squirrel in the garden.’ They don’t say, ‘What do you think of Descartes’s second treatise?’ It doesn’t matter what people say in their columns — it’s not the point.”
“Columns are really just a series of symbols,” says Lewis. “The person writing it just wants to be in the forefront of your mind, nothing more.” Which makes it very unappealing to marketeers.
“Reading a column is like a friend whispering something in your ear,” says de Botton. “We all want people to whisper secret messages to us. Children like to play ‘I have a secret to tell you’. It’s great fun, but what they say is often not very important.”
“To ‘publish’ someone is to have a fantasy of who this person you’re publishing is, and you use it as a map reference or signpost to guide your own life because you are lost,” says James. “I would guess that the typical profile of a ‘publisher’ is someone who is old and who feels marginalised, empty and pointless. They don’t have an inner life,” he says.
“It makes us look decrepit. And that is a high-status position in this society,” says de Botton. “Perhaps closeness is not always possible, or desirable. Being a rent-a-quote gives us another option. It says: I want to be in contact with you, but not too much. It’s the equivalent of sending a postcard.”