John Mullin: Serious news in August silly season

Traditional news coverage and the Silly Season have often converged during Donald Trump's presidential nomination campaign. Picture: AP

Traditional news coverage and the Silly Season have often converged during Donald Trump's presidential nomination campaign. Picture: AP

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UNEXPECTED, serious news stories during la morte-saison of media coverage should not detract from the fun side of trying to fill newspapers during the August drought, writes John Mullin

Well, that’s another interesting week for the BBC, no? Alex Salmond kicks it off by having a go at Nick Robinson over coverage of the Scottish referendum. The BBC man has a pop back, accusing the former First Minister of seeking “control”. And then Nicola Sturgeon steps into the debate, making what we might see as a thoughtful contribution over the future of broadcasting in Scotland.

On the UK stage, Armando Iannucci – the rather brilliant writer behind The Thick of It and Veep – is perhaps guilty of hubris in his nonetheless entertaining attack on Tory plans to cut Auntie’s funding in the James MacTaggart memorial lecture in Edinburgh. But it is the intervention of Sue Perkins, the Great British Bake-Off presenter, which tickled me most of all.

At dinner after Iannucci’s lecture, Perkins rounds on John Whitttingdale, the Culture Secretary, fuelled, as she says she was, by a couple of glasses of wine. A lively exchange follows. It goes on so long that, as Perkins put it, “we had bored the living daylights out of everyone else at the table, and we looked up to find everyone else had cleared their plates”.

One almost feels sorry for Whittingdale, one of those rare breeds at Westminster in that he still displays the odd signs of being a paid-up member of the human race. Which of us hasn’t sat there, a reluctant guest at some God-awful function, pushing the rubber chicken and flaccid spuds round the plate, and unable to escape the very, very important insights of another insistent guest?

Perkins’ intervention seems to me to be the perfect Silly Season story – interesting, and adding to the nation’s gaiety, but perhaps not terribly important in the great scheme. After a break abroad, it was a delight to return this week to the British papers, a brilliant mix of the serious and the frivolous throughout the year, but particularly creative during the becalmed days of August.

You can’t escape the Great British Bake-Off these days, of course. But Mary Berry’s insistence that the crunchy top of a crème brûlée mustn’t be created with a blow-torch sparked a Fleet Street backlash and a fearsome array of superficially serious articles. They included vociferous for and against arguments and detailed guides to the best blow-torch and where to buy them, should you be foolhardy enough to ignore Mary Berry.

Silly Season is when news editors have to think more imaginatively, the easy pickings from Westminster and Holyrood or from juicy court cases denied them. It used to last the whole summer long, but now it seems to be more an August phenomenon.

It’s a worldwide phenomenon. In Germany, they call it Sommerloch – a hole in summer, and it’s la morte-saison (the dead season) in France. In Sweden, it’s nyhetstorka, or news drought.

And it’s now taken on a life of its own. Because ambitious, younger journalists get their chance to be in charge as older colleagues bag the best holidays, it is highly competitive. Even when there are “proper” stories around – the migrant crisis; the shooting of two US journalists live on TV; the creation of 45 new peers – professional pride is at stake.

Much Silly Season fare is animal related and/or fishy. Sharks spotted off the west coast is a traditional favourite. In more ambitious publications, such a tale may be linked to global warming, so fulfilling another ambition, to give the most spurious stories some cod scientific legitimacy.

But mystery is perfect too: hence the regular re-appearance of the Beast of Bodmin, usually after a suspiciously exact 12-month gap. The joy there is that rational explanations are canvassed, every year, only to be painstakingly debunked, one by one.

As for crop circles? They may never have happened at all had August not existed.

This year, though, Silly Season is a little different. Much of the stuff we would in any other year enjoy as daft fantasy, an amusing diversion of sometimes dubious veracity, turns out to be very important indeed. And, as it happens, true.

Take Jeremy Corbyn, for example. Had anyone told you a few weeks back a 66-year-old left-wing backbencher – one who ticks all the boxes of what modern politics is not meant to be about – was on course to win the Labour leadership, you would have chuckled merrily and called the nurse. Particularly as he struggled on to the ballot paper only because of the patronising largesse of some MPs who grandly thought he should be there, but just, as they put it, to facilitate a wide debate.

Women-only rail carriages? It’s the perfect Silly Season story.

Then there’s Donald Trump. Offending everyone: migrants, women and war heroes. I’m sure there’s a few categories I’ve missed there. The idea that the Mad Bloke with the Hair could be leading the Republican charge to the White House is incredible, isn’t it? Except, of course, it isn’t.

There are, admittedly, serious arguments about authenticity with both Corbyn and Trump. Neither conforms to the chattering-class orthodoxy of a successful candidate in the early 21st century. In a world where the rest of us are sick of identikit politicians who adopt a highly rarified form of don’t-rock-the-boat, meaningless rhetoric, it is their honesty which connects. With some, at least.

True. But let’s not allow serious considerations to intervene too much before Silly Season ends on Monday, a bank holiday down south. Savour, instead, Usain Bolt’s double triumph over drugs cheat Justin Gatlin at the World Championships in China. This is the acme of apparently straightforward good-versus-evil tale our newspapers adore. But the cream on the cake was that Segway-riding cameraman who contrived to knock over the ten-time world champion.

Mo Farah, Jessica Ennis-Hill and Greg Rutherford combined to recreate Super Saturday from the London Olympics. Great stories, all, but it was long-jumper Rutherford, only the fifth British athlete to hold all four major championships at the same time, who was behind the best stuff.

His spat with officialdom over the disappearance of the Union flag from British vests, his baby son, Milo, and even his dad building a long jump pit for him in his back garden garnered column inches. But for the Silly Season aficionado, the tale that his brilliance was down to schoolyard bullying over his hair colour is the clear winner.

Ginger? Surely that would mean Scotland would have armies of world-beating long-jumpers on hand?

Alas! We are about to leave this joyful collection behind us. Our newspapers will soon be filled with every cough and spit from the party conferences. Good then, to have enjoyed every moment while it lasted. The nights are fair drawing in.

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