The current headline on the BBC News website is all about how David Cameron may have smoked cannabis at school. The story is linked to a 'Have Your Say' thread which asks Do you care about Cameron's past?. The thing that struck me was that, reading through several pages of the comments, the resounding answer is a big 'no', with almost complete agreement. In addition at least half of the comments seem to be saying 'this isn't news'. Here's just one randomly-picked example:
"Please could the BBC.co.uk feature actual NEWS on its front page instead of giving free publicity to that ghastly, prune-faced, sanctimonious rag, the Mail on Sunday?"
The Mail on Sunday reference is due to the fact that they, along with the Independent on Sunday, will be serialising the biography (not written by or endorsed by Cameron) that this claim has arisen from. The use of news stories to promote biographies seems to be a suspicious and growing trend, but that's an issue for another post. The question I want to ask is, are the BBC Have Your Say commenters right that this story isn't news?
One the one hand, the fact that most people aren't really bothered by Cameron having (allegedly) once smoked cannabis seems indisputable. One the other hand, the fact that the story is currently the BBC's most-read news article seems to suggest that people are at least interested. The two issues - being interested and being bothered - aren't the same, but are closely related. I'd like to think that the most powerful news is still stories that people are actually concerned by, rather that just morbidly fascinated by, however successful celebrity tittle-tattle may be.
So are the BBC right to lead with this story as their current headline? They'd probably argue that it's an issue of genuine interest. Perhaps also the fact that other news outlets are reporting it prominently bears some relevance - people might go to the BBC News website expecting to read more details, having seen or heard a headline elsewhere. But such an argument means always following an existing news agenda, rather than attempting to set or influence it.
The balance between populism and worthiness in news is a difficult line to draw, but it can be done. The Independent's front page leaders on its campaign against excessive packaging is a good example - a cause that might not have been the most important story of the day, but which makes its readers feel better about an issue they know they ought to be concerned about.
One of the paradoxes of news is that it's impossible to be truly 'neutral' or without bias, as the mere act of reporting something is to implicitly suggest that it is important, and hence the relative prominence that you give a story communicates the level of importance you think it contains. It's for this reason that I don't think the BBC should have led with the Cameron drugs story. The risk that readers will assume that the BBC thinks Cameron's history with drugs is of high importance, in contrast with their own views, is too great, and a potential (small) damage to the news service's reputation. The facts of the story should still have been published, and promoted lower down from the relevant index pages, but some other story should have been the lead.
Ultimately, the most-read stories shouldn't always be the highest-placed stories. Otherwise cute pictures of pandas would come pretty high.