The Christiansen Method

21 Jul

‘I did not see anything about the Liberal transport proposals’: Christiansen on screen. (BFI)

Thinking further about Arthur Christiansen’s wooden yet commanding presence in The Day The Earth Caught Fire reminded me of a thought that frequently occurs to this blog: that journalists are only famous to other journalists, and even then not always for long.

He was editor of the Daily Express from 1933 to 1957, hailed as one of the great press innovators and a genius of presentation, but I wonder how many people in Britain today remember who he is. I had only barely heard of him until I saw him on screen, and even at the Tribune he is never mentioned as a guiding light in the way that others such as CP Scott and Harold Evans are. (Of course that may be because the Tribune is a broadsheet that only looks up to broadsheet figures; I’m sure he is venerated to this day at the Express).

In his glowing but not uncritical account of Christiansen in How Journalism Works (1964), Roy Nash writes:

Time may well prove him to have been the greatest of all creators of the commercially successful popular newspaper image. Night after night, for nearly a quarter of a century, he designed an ingeniously eye-catching paper so compelling in appearance that it had to be read … He and his work almost totally dominated Fleet Street, conditioned and moulded its life, and only now are the rivals of his Daily Express trying to free themselves from his powerful influence.

But, Nash adds, his drive to “capture the reader’s interest … and lead it along by the hand” had unforeseen consequences:

Reporting in the Christiansen manner called for great skill in writing and especially in sub-editing. Sub-editing was, in fact, for the first time raised to a high professional level. But the technique had its dangerous traps into which the unwary fell. The logical step in trying to present every story in a totally simplified fashion was to assume that most news was, inherently, composed of simple black and white elements …

This led to something that Christiansen had neither intended nor wanted; a return to embroidered reporting. News tended, in the Fleet Street phrase, to be “hardened”. Events that were compounded of the indecisive greys and off-whites of news were turned into apparently clear-cut blacks and whites. Selected aspects of many of the highly complex problems that Britain faced immediately after the war were reduced to ludicrous levels and treated with alarming irresponsibility.

The Express was still broadsheet-sized at the time Christiansen edited it, but what Nash is describing here sounds like, in effect, the birth of the modern tabloid: a combination of vividness, exaggeration and jumping to conclusions that one associates more these days with the likes of Paul Dacre and Kelvin MacKenzie.

As editor, Christiansen used to write a daily bulletin to his staff, and the former Express journalist Geoffrey Mather has collected many of the most engaging quotes from them on his website. They’re fascinating. And they do, as Nash suggests, hint at a journalist of a somewhat different type to Dacre and MacKenzie: one constantly struggling, not always successfully, to reconcile the instinct to excite with the desire to be high-minded. (At one stage, for example, he writes: “Watch out for loaded stories. There is a tendency for reporters to write copy which, sentence for sentence, seems innocuous, but which adds up in detail to the dangerous business of creating a prejudicial atmosphere.” Well, quite.)

Some of his observations are resonant aphorisms for modern journalists that might stand alongside words from Scott or Evans. Some of them are rather less so: dated quibbles about grammar or now-baffling social niceties. And many of them involve discussions of people and scandals that are now – like the journalists who wrote about them – almost completely forgotten:

Yesterday in a story about a broken romance we referred to the the girl’s occupation as that of bottler in a lemonade factory. We used to have a rule that we did not refer to the occupations of people in lowly stations when romance or broken romance was involved. It is a good rule and should be revived. (3 March 1953)

In the early editions at any rate there were too many stories about things and not enough stories about people. Significant news predominated – and while that is fine, you will never get people to digest significant news if there is nothing else on the diet sheet. Contrast is the heart and soul of a newspaper. (Even the Manchester Guardian, on a day pregnant with heavy news, found space on its front page to say that goats are to be replaced by sheep on the Malayan rubber estates.) (17 March 1953)

Many, many stories in the Daily Express today are of violent character. Maybe a leavening of more “thoughtful” news is necessary. I do not see anything about the Liberal transport proposals, for example. We should always seek to balance so-called shock tactics with an appeal to the thoughtful reader. (8 August 1952)

All my journalistic thinking is based on making the news so inviting to people that they read involuntarily news which normally would not interest them. That is why I rejoice when headlines such as “Four Mr Europes woo Miss Britain” are written on a story from the Strasbourg conference. It is the hope that such novel presentation will at least open the door. (27 November 1951)

With the arrival of June weather we should try to make the paper suit the optimism of the masses. Never forget that the Daily Express is noted for its tonic effect. And while on this subject, it might be well to restate the three-fold rule for our paper:

1. Never set the police on anybody.
2. Never cry down the pleasures of the people.
3. Remember our own habits and frailties when disposed to be critical of others. (4 June 1951)

I get queasy about salacious reporting. All the papers are going in for it, and in the case of the Indian doctor it was quite shocking for a family man to have to read so much detail. Surely we can take a decision to print as little salacious matter as is necessary to prove the case for the prosecution or the defence – and no more. A typical example last week was the phrase in the doctor case that there was “intimacy in a car on two occasions on the back seat”. It is the phrase “on the back seat” which leaves little to the imagination. (5 March 1951)

It is the journalistic fashion to concentrate on the first paragraphs of stories. I believe in that. But I believe just as emphatically in the perfection of the last paragraph. (5 February 1953)

Many more here.

 

 

One Response to “The Christiansen Method”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Making a meal of it | Ten minutes past deadline - August 18, 2020

    […] in Belarus is usually enough. Not that a little levity to intrigue the reader is a bad thing; Arthur Christiansen might have approved of that. But when handfuls of extra jokes are being thrown in to the bag like sachets of tomato ketchup, […]

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