One of the challenges of a blog like this is that in commentating on a story in the news, we run the risk of walking a well-worn path, and the mere mention of ‘Tom Daley’ puts us in mind not so much of a path as a six-lane motorway. But if we take a moment to pull off into the services, we might get a rather different perspective on this very modern media story…
The most obvious nod to the modern is the medium used to deliver the message. This is pure speculation, but it does have the hallmarks of a classic pre-emptive strike: it used to be the case that if a paper got hold of a juicy story, you would be offered the choice: talk openly in exchange for a sympathetic hearing, or be ‘exposed’. Tom has gone for talking openly – but rather than a paper or TV interview, has picked up his smartphone and logged onto his YouTube account, effectively becoming his own media outlet. I don’t know how stage-managed the statement was, but the verité approach was a good call.
The numbers are on his side: Tom’s Twitter feed has 2.5million followers, and his video has been seen nearly ten million times – which is about four times the daily circulation of The Sun. YouTube and social media offer a way to get your message directly to people unmediated (or at least unmediated by people other than yourself, and until your words are edited together against a techno sound track).
The other very modern feature of this story has been the reaction, and in this digital age, reactions are visible, measurable and stand up to analysis. The papers duly reported this story as they would report any other scoop from a rival. The difference is that so much is now online: the Daily Mail website is one of the biggest news websites in the world, as you can see from the geographic spread of contributors to their comments pages. What does this mean for the story?
We are familiar with statements being reported with a spin the original speaker may not have intended, and here it is as easy for the reader to click through to see the original for themselves as it is to read a columnist’s opinion on it (you can usually guess what the columnist thinks anyway).
So the story was reported across traditional media outlets, and readers had the opportunity to say what they thought on the more dynamic reader fora. Quite a few professed to be completely uninterested (uninterested enough to read about it, log in and type a comment, anyway). A lot of positive comments, a few shrugs and a few negative comments. If you wanted to take a snapshot of the public’s attitude, this would be a huge, though flawed, set of data to plunder.
A cheering bit of news was that although several papers and news programmes reported that Daley was on the receiving end of ‘homophobic tweets’, they seemed to be the same few being given publicity. I should imagine that thousands of supportive messages were sent Tom’s way, so we are looking at a tiny minority of negative comments, probably fewer than the average female newsreader gets on a daily basis. You’d have to have a seriously skewed view of your mailbag if you let that sort of thing bother you: the only point here is that traditional media always look for the worst case scenario and push it even when it’s not that bad.
There was a time when people ‘admitted’ being gay rather than just mentioning it. The truth is that as a public figure, Tom’s dates will always get into the paper, whoever they are and however low a profile they may wish to keep. The public wants to know about the people they know about – it would’ve been a big story whatever the source. I remember a columnist quipping that homosexuality ‘wasn’t so much the love that dare not speak its name as the love that won’t shut up,’ – and this was at a time when you could be sacked for being gay. A public figure’s sexuality may not be important, but marriages, divorces and broken engagements between men and women are bread and butter to the glossies. Nowadays we are interested in the story of the relationship rather than the fact that it’s between two people of the same sex.
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