27 AUGUST 1983, Page 15

The press

A babel of voices

Paul Johnson

ooked at with the clinical eye of a news 1--deditor, it has not been a bad August: wars in Central America and Africa; the Middle East bubbling away; IRA-police gun-battles; an assassination or two; and, not least, horrific sex-crime in Brighton, the response of the public to which seems to in- dicate the beginning of a fierce anti- homosexual backlash. All the same, this is the time of year when the news is thin and when newspapers seem to consist mainly of feature articles.

Now this is not as it should be and the reason, I think, is that not many editors nowadays are clear in their own minds about what a feature article is supposed to be. Strictly speaking, it ought to be the feature article: that is, the item in the paper which the editor chooses to feature because it is particularly original, striking, well- written and dramatic. Leaving aside the straight news stories, it is — or ought to be — the best thing in the paper. The essence of a feature article is its rarity; or rather its uniqueness. There is only one in each issue. That is the classic definition.

In the days of Sir William Haley, which is after all not so very long ago, the Times usually stuck to this arrangement. There was only one feature, called 'the Turnover,' and it occupied the key position in the paper on the leader page opposite the main news page. These turnovers were sometimes dull but they were usually very well- informed, written by thc leading authority in the field, with a high factual content. It was regarded as*a great honour to be asked to write one, and they were much clipped and quoted. , The present policy of the Times is quite different and reflects what I regard as the pernicious invention, by American papers like the New York Times and Washington Post, of what is termed the Op-Ed page: a whole page devoted to shor-

tish and highly tendentious articles on cur- rent topics by people of all shades of opi- nion.

This approach indicates the desire of editors to hedge their bets: a certain lack of confidence in their own editorial line and an anxiety to fend off criticism by allowing op- ponents to put a different point of view. It is also, of course, a convenient way of deal- ing with importunate busybodies (chiefly MPs) who besiege editors with their offer- ings. But the result, in my view, is a babel of voices. The feature page of the Times, with four or five items every day, is now a jour- nalistic Hyde Park Corner, with too many people on soapboxes shouting at the crowd, leaving nothing but noise and confusion. Too many opinions; too few facts --- in- deed, the expert factual articles from abroad, once the mainstay of the Tur- novers, are now chopped into unsatisfying slices and buried in the news pages.

The Guardian pursues a similar policy one issue may sometimes have as many as ten 'serious' features — but with an impor- tant, and reprehensible, distinction. The best shop-window in the paper is, of course, opposite its leaders-letter page: and this is duly occupied by two or three features. But an additional page, earlier in the paper, also carries a number of features. There is a not- so-very subtle class distinction here. The first group reflect the general editorial line of the paper, or at any rate are written by its staff. The second group are by the hoi polio': MPs, outsiders, those who hold views quite different to the Guardian's and whose inclusion is primarily to demonstrate the paper's broadmindedness. But 1 detect a distinct whiff of trade unionism too, with the prime space reserved exclusively to staff journalists or other insiders. A multiplicity of features, as I say, produces confusion; but one based upon a secret system of apar- theid is unfair both to contributors and readers.

The Daily Telegraph is the last quality paper to retain the classical notion of the feature. Its solitary leader-page features have provoked a certain amount of mirth over the years. Malcolm Muggeridge used to describe this page as like a set of rugger- posts, with the leaders and the letters con- stituting the uprights, Peterborough form- ing the area below the crossbar, and the feature above it. 'And', he would add mischievously, 'nobody has ever been known to score a goal'. Not quite true, as a matter of fact. The most politically influen- tial feature article I can ever remember was published in that space: written by Donald McLachlan in the spring of 1956 and entitl- ed 'Waiting for the Smack of Firm Govern- ment', it had a cataclysmic effect on the then prime minister, Sir Anthony Eden. And these solus-features are much livelier than they used to be. As it happens, the Telegraph carried last week a feature by its editor, William Deedes, which was in my view the shrewdest and most illuminating comment on the Government which has ap- peared since the general election.

The best are now run by the Financial Times: they are extremely well-informed and factually reliable, and supply a degree of expert comment on the political and economic news which is hard to find anywhere else, at any rate on a day-by-day basis. That, I think, is what features are primarily for. Opinionative features are legitimate also, but one a day in each paper is quite enough. For the populars, of course, the problem is not quantity but presentation. The Daily Express main feature page, back in the Fifties, used to be a model of how to project an article — but in those days the Express had a huge features department, crammed with experts in this arcane art. It has never been able to adapt itself to the tabloid format and its projection of features is now much inferior to the Daily Mail's. Equally, the Sun can- not, match the layout and typographical :skills of the Daily Mirror in presenting feature material.

The inflation in the number of features illustrates the Kingsley Amis rule, 'More means worse'. Many features, and not only in the populars, are now appallingly badly written: indeed the standard is sometimes lower in the qualities, because features departments in the posh papers are often less ready to indulge in ruthless rewriting of poor copy. Very few journalists now know how to conceive and write a feature. The features editor of one of our top papers complained to me not long ago that not a single specialist writer on the paper's staff could write a decent feature unaided. All the more reason, then, to restore the feature to its pristine and solitary prominence and to remember the old adage, 'You can't beat news in a newspaper.'