Same story, different headlines

It is a bracing thing, to leave the country before Christmas madness sets in, and return with the new year well and truly under way. The sense of potential and change, which can seem bleary and uncertain on 1 January, must surely be clearer in the eye after three more or less news-free weeks on the other side of the world.

The year, though, quickly loses its newness when you open the newspapers. It is as if the same basic stories are still dominating the headlines, with only the particulars and the names of the participants changed. If one were to return in January 2012, or travel back to two years ago, I suspect that the general pattern of news and issues would be pretty much identical.

The advantage of stepping off the media merry-go-round for a while is that it is easier to identify these archetypal British news stories, served up at regular intervals to enrage, frustrate, concern or titillate the early 21st-century reader.

There will inevitably be the story of an offensive soap opera. Did something happen in The Archers while I was away? Was there a dead baby story? Or was that EastEnders? Wherever it appeared, the storyline has caused such outrage that, at first glance, I assumed that it concerned a real dead baby, not a made-up one.

Whether it is a lapse of taste, or a lesbian scene, or a rape, or a favourite being character being killed off, the soap opera news story will follow the same pattern: outrage across the land, switchboards jammed, middle-class tabloids full of rent-a-gob moralists blaming the Sixties, concerned websites – Mumsnet, Dadsnet, Kidsnet, Petsnet – sounding off to the press. It is all taken terribly seriously and will quickly represent something altogether bigger than a bit of fiction on TV – the end of decency, perhaps, an assault on the family, an insult to decent British viewers.

A politician (usually John Prescott) will be making a fool of himself. Looking around, I get a sense that Vince Cable’s halo has lost some of its sheen. Was it the dancing thing, or did he put his foot in it in some way? If it is not Vince, then some other MP can be relied upon to have brought new levels of embarrassment to public life. Lembit Opik played the jester role for a while, but the champion chump of recent times has been Prescott. Has he done it again? Thought so.

There will be at least one survey in the press, revealing that women are better than men, or that men prefer work to home, or that Britons are having more (or less) sex than ever before. This new year, it has apparently been proved beyond doubt that women are marrying men who are richer than they are. It has been statistically proven that an astonishing 98.1 per cent of these surveys are a complete waste of time.

There will, of course, be a football outrage. Someone will have fooled the ref by falling over in the penalty area. Or maybe there has been a horror tackle. Or a nightclub incident. The details are unimportant; what matters is that it will offer an opportunity for widespread sanctimonious pontification about the pampered, spoilt, overpaid footballers of today.

Someone inappropriate will have reappeared on television. There was a time, before the invention of reality TV, when politicians retired to write their memoirs and ageing broadcasters were happy to eke out a living by appearing in advertisements for stair-lifts or insurance companies. Now they are encouraged to make public idiots of themselves for money. Either I am suffering from a jetlag-induced bout of déjà vu, or Angela Rippon is back for the umpteenth time. Any moment now, some old fool will mention her appearance on The Morecambe and Wise Show.

Perhaps it is all a dream, and I am being haunted by ancient headlines, still rattling around in the brain. Please tell me that these stories are not masquerading as news in a new year.

Independent, Tuesday, 11 January 2011