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Editorial Notre Dame fire exposes mass media conceit

The fire that has destroyed part of Notre Dame cathedral in Paris has appalled huge numbers. Millions of people in France and around the world have been shocked and distressed by the inferno that has wrought such damage to a national and religious symbol of great significance.

Many other people will rightly regret the gross disfigurement of a magnificent work of Gothic architecture. After all, the building and its interior artefacts are the product of breathtaking feats of human labour and imagination.

Their beauty will outlast the thoroughly reactionary purposes to which the cathedral has often been put over the centuries, including as a showcase for war booty looted from other nations.

But was the conflagration really a “tragedy” or “catastrophe” on the scale portrayed by large sections of the mass media? Nobody died, although some of the French capital’s courageous firefighters have been injured.

Unfortunately, we live in an age when many — although by no means all — newspapers and broadcasting stations engage in wholesale exaggeration, invention, trivialisation and hysteria in order to expand their profits or their political influence, or both.

Their priorities do not include the full and proper reporting of very real and substantial cases of human misery, let alone investigating the causes. Nor, for that matter, do they report the many examples in Britain and around the world of people joining together to resist injustice and strive for a better society.

Instead, they see their mission as maintaining the capitalist status quo where the interests of big business and corporate shareholders come first. That means trying to keep millions of media consumers as uninformed, misinformed, diverted and divided as possible.

Wall-to-wall coverage of Notre Dame will do the trick until the next sensational event comes along to keep us all shocked, outraged or supposedly grief-stricken. For the BBC and Sky, in particular, this was also an opportunity to indulge in the pretence that Britain and France are devoutly Christian countries where we eagerly offer up our special prayers.

Even so, the daily papers are not always unanimous in their choice of top stories.

For example, today’s front pages also featured such major items as two minor television personalities checking into a hotel together (the Daily Mirror), a largely unknown celebrity denying she appeared topless at a football match (the Daily Star) and a non-shake up at Goldman Sachs (the Financial Times, obviously).  

To be fair, some papers also devoted front-page space to NHS staffing (the Daily Mirror) and inadequate medication levels (the Daily Express).

In England and Wales the Morning Star splashed on the despatch of a blockade-busting shipment of musical instruments from Liverpool to Cuba — an inspirational story of international solidarity duly ignored by the rest of the national media. In Scotland it splashed on civil servants taking to the streets for better pay. Items inside dealt with mental health, climate change protests, railway pensions, freed asylum-seekers, prison violence, trades union conferences and international news from all five continents.   

In the Notre Dame coverage elsewhere — the fire broke out after the Morning Star’s deadline — one aspect deserved rather more investigation. Two French business leaders are offering €300 million (around £259m) towards the cost of cathedral repairs.

This is in a country where nine million people live in poverty, most of them single mothers, their children, elderly women, unemployed workers and immigrants.

That tragedy might also benefit from publicity and funds.



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