The Observer is part of a noble tradition, treating a complex world with compassion


‘The newspaper is the writer’s protection and the reader’s trigger warning.’ Photograph: Chris Floyd

You are reading this. That’s all I know for sure. Whoever you are, wherever you are, whenever you are, you are reading this. I am definitely correct about that. And if I’m not, these words have gone into no one’s head so no one knows I wasn’t. I am either right or the secret of my wrongness could not be safer.

You are now reading this, though after a paragraph like the above you may be fewer in number. My prose will be slashing people down like the German machine-guns at the Somme. Although, actually, I don’t know whether you, who are reading this, also read the first paragraph. That could have been torn away or obscured by ketchup or not visible over the person on the crowded train’s shoulder. This bit may be the only fragment you’ve seen – perhaps it’s being quoted on a website dedicated to exposing flippant references to mass death, or maybe you’ve just exposed this single yellowed inch when tearing up a carpet in a flat you’ve just bought to see what the floors are like underneath, or maybe these words are frozen on the screen of your crashed computer after you accidentally clicked on the wrong link while looking for an interview with David Mitchell the novelist and you’re just glassily staring at them while contemplating posting a turd to the head office of Hewlett-Packard.

In its 225 years, the Observer has put a lot of words out there. It’s chucked a lot of phrases, news, opinions, photos, drawings, cartoons, puzzles into a lot of heads. It’s adorned a lot of breakfast tables, from stately homes to Little Chefs; it’s wrapped a lot of chips; it’s lined a lot of lofts; and, latterly, it’s provided a lot of links on social media, shared out of interest, approval, admiration, scorn, rage and dismissive incomprehension, to whip up a claque in whooping agreement or to summon a crowd of torch-bearing virtual villagers to storm the castle of the sinister Count Contrary-View.

There have been billions of words and phrases, unleashed and immortalised in libraries and digital archives. For example: “A west-country gentleman, not much acquainted with the ways of London, expressed great surprise, a few nights ago, at the flocks of chicken prostitutes which he observed before Somerset House, and which he actually mistook for the pupils of some large boarding-school. One of the young wiffes, however, soon convinced him of his error, by granting a favour, which will probably retard his journey home for some time.”

That sequence of words was in one edition of the Observer. Two now, I suppose – honestly, it’s like a broken record, the liberal media! But it’s not a very pleasant piece of writing, is it? It wouldn’t be terribly nice even if “chicken prostitutes” just meant poultry you could have sex with – that would still be a weird and grim perversion to chuckle at. Then again, that’s not the worst thing we do to hens. But if that’s what it meant, the “west-country gentleman” is unlikely to have mistaken the chickens for schoolchildren. So it’s probably a jokey reference to a rube whose head is turned by the glorious abundance of opportunities for paid paedophilia in the big city. He’s certainly in no hurry to get back to the sticks where children like that still go to school!

That’s the 1970s for you, as a dyslexic might say, because it’s from the 1790s – the first ever edition of this paper, in fact. Whoever wrote it, possibly our founder WS Bourne, would be baffled by the world in which you have just read it, and probably terrified by the object you’ve read it on – and that’s if you’ve bought a paper copy. The colour photos alone might be enough to make him cry witchcraft. If he caught sight of an iPad, he’d probably check himself straight into Bedlam.

But perhaps I’m being unfair on the writer. The levity of the tone doesn’t necessarily mean that he or she (probably he) didn’t disapprove of child prostitution, or that he despised a provincial’s ignorance. It could be a dig at how city dwellers become inured to levels of moral corruption that outsiders can barely comprehend. That would put it more on the side of the angels than my cracks at dyslexia and mental health, which are just glib.

In my defence, I am trying to be a bit funny – it’s not my aim to report the news or discourse sympathetically on people’s problems or illnesses. “But why not?” you might demand. That’s a question which the internet, with its infinite capacity for replying, often asks about things I’ve written. Why did you write that? People are dying out there, didn’t you know? Why did you make a silly joke about the thing I most care about? Why haven’t you mentioned it at all? Why have you put together these words that don’t provide new information or even put forward a strident argument? Of all the things you could have said, why have you said this, rather than what I would have said?

This is why we need the Observer. What it provides, for the millions of articles it has engendered, is context. What explains, excuses and elevates them is that they’re part of something else, something bigger. They have to be understood as contributing to a whole, not broken down into thousands of particles, and tweeted around the galaxy to perish in inexplicable isolation like a lone bee on Pluto. What explains my attempts at jokes, or the political cartoon, or a crossword puzzle, or someone saying whether they liked a play, or a random photo of an autumn sunset, or a few lines about a yokel encountering a child sex worker, or 700 words specifically on the subject of a boardroom crisis at GlaxoSmithKline, is that they’re part of a newspaper.

Newspapers like the Observer give readers the bigger picture. Illustration: David Foldvari

A newspaper aims to give a view of the world, a sense of what humanity currently is, what our society amounts to. That’s true of a fulminating tabloid as much as a thoughtful broadsheet, because the tabloids present a very clear view: a narrow one, in my opinion (figuratively – their lack of physical breadth is measurable rather than arguable), but coherent nonetheless. The Daily Mail, for example, depicts society as shameful and mean, to be feared and to be angry about, where the righteous must pre-emptively strike down the loathsome. I don’t agree, but it’s a view.

“But isn’t that exactly why it’s wrong?” you may think. “A newspaper is, at best, patronising and, at worst, blinkered and misleading. Thanks to the internet, we don’t need newspaper editors to select and curate our truths.” I think we need it all the more because of the illusion of omniscience the internet provides. To anyone who says: “Who needs a newspaper when you’ve got the internet?” I say: “Have you read the internet? Have you read all of it?” Because you might as well say: “Who needs a newspaper when you can just go around the world and find out exactly what’s happening?” Anyone who believes the untamed online chaos is an effective device for getting an accurate impression of reality is a fool who conspires in his own misinformation.

The newspaper is the writer’s protection and the reader’s trigger warning. What you are reading, it says, whether on paper, laptop, tablet or phone, is a contribution to something which stands for something. This obviates the need for every article to restate those principles, which creates some space for saying something new.

In the case of an Observer article, it’s part of a long, noble and humane tradition of treating a complex world with compassion and self-doubt, rather than certainty and blame. To me, its masthead has always proclaimed that what’s inside may be complicated or upsetting – or funny or interesting or quirky – but it won’t be cruel, simplistic or a lie.

When the Observer was launched, the advertisements announced it to be: “Unbiased by Prejudice – Uninfluenced by Party, Whose Principle is Independence, whose Object is Truth, and the Dissemination of every Species of Knowledge that may conduce to the Happiness of Society.” Then, as now, that is the context.