Why the Basil Fawlty view of readers might not be doing us any favours

Basil Fawlty never actually said it would be easier to run a hotel without the guests.

But a wonderful passage from the wonderful Waldorf Salad episode shows that this is clearly the way he sees the difficult world of hospitality.

This.. is.. typical. Absolutely typical.. The kind of… [shouting loudly] ARSE, I have to put up with from you people. You ponce in here expecting to be waited on hand and foot, while I’m trying to run a hotel here. Have you any idea of how much there is to do? Do you ever think of that? Of course not, you’re all too busy sticking your noses into every corner, poking around for things to complain about, aren’t you? Well let me tell you something: this is exactly how Nazi Germany started! A lot of layabouts with nothing better to do than to cause trouble. Well I’ve had fifteen years of pandering to the likes of you, and I’ve had enough. I’ve had it. Come on, pack your bags and get out.

Anyone who has ever run a newsdesk would sympathise with the beleaguered Basil.

It would, one could be forgiven for thinking, be far easier without the readers. Not the ones that simply and passively read our papers and websites. The other ones.

The ones that stride into our reception areas without so much as a by your leave or an appointment, usually right on deadline, to share their non-stories about faulty housing association property boilers, or to deliver their spidery-writing bowls results.

The ones that email us their conspiracy theories about supermarket schemes, or ring up to correct supposed errors in a letter they sent by snail mail six days ago.

The ones who come to us with their complaints about officialdom and then do an immediate reverse-ferret when we send a photographer round and start chasing corporate reaction.

I’ve often said that wasting press time should be an offence. A jailable one.

And I’ve not even mentioned the ones who offer us useful advice (‘why don’t you do some investigative journalism?’) or pose incisive questions (‘is this really a story? Slow news day?’) online. One paper in Canada has now disabled comments on all its stories because readers have become so vicious in their trolling.

And yet, and yet…………

I was doing some writing coaching with a reporter the other day and came to a story he had written where his contempt for the main complainant oozed out of every line.

I sympathised. I’ve been that news editor who lets off expletive-ridden steam after ending a conversation with a member of the Great British Public hundreds of times.

But here’s the thing.

Some of the best journalists I have ever worked with don’t do that smash-the-phone-down-and-swear thing.

They have positively relished the sheer bonkers eccentricity and waywardness of their audience.

Maybe they’re a bit mad themselves.

But actually, like that stupid corporate fun sign, it does help. Because their writing is the better for it.

They see potential news stories in everyone, meaning everyone is worth a listen.

To put it another way, I’m not sure you can be a good journalist if you don’t like people.

It’s a point which I think US media commentator and media academic Steve Buttry makes well in this piece questioning whether journalists are still able to recognise the stories under their noses.

It’s a highly inconvenient truth.

But sometimes the people described by one of my favourite colleagues as the oddballs, myths and legends just may have a point.


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