Political Animals

News of the Natural World

by Alec Charles (Author)
Others 222 Pages


Newspapers have long been enthralled by accounts of cute, cuddly, strange, dangerous and endangered beasts, and by extraordinary and sometimes apocryphal narratives of natural phenomena. This study explores the incidence of several such stories in the British press: from reports of the "ethnic" conflicts between different species of squirrel to the tragedy of Cecil the slaughtered Zimbabwean lion. It takes in, along the way, the celebrity of Knut the polar bear, the Tamworth Two and the Exmoor Emperor. It surveys the media representation of the natural landscape from the crocodile-infested reaches of the River Thames out as far as the bleak wastes of the former planet Pluto. In doing so, and in conversation with reporters and players in these tales, it investigates the political subtexts and social meanings of such stories, and seeks thereby to reveal the real value of such soft, sentimental and sometimes silly news.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Chapter 1: Foxes and Badgers and Bears
  • Chapter 2: Squirrels
  • Chapter 3: Crocodile
  • Chapter 4: Stag
  • Chapter 5: Lion
  • Chapter 6: Dog
  • Chapter 7: Paper Tigers
  • Bibliography
  • Index

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The thoughts behind this book began life in a piece I wrote in 2004 for British Journalism Review: my thanks go to my editor on that occasion, Bill Hagerty, for his invaluable support and advice. Thanks are also due to Richard Caddell, Mark Duffett, Michael Higgins, Keith Jebb, Steven Kettell, Michelle Ponting, Phil Potter, Ian Rasmussen, Simon Roberts, Heather Savigny, Gavin Stewart, Mick Temple and Garry Whannel, who have also supported my efforts in this area across the years. Thanks also to my friends and colleagues Lesley Albon, Jen Birks, Peter Dean, Ian Edgington, Ato Erzan-Essien, James Evans, Caroline Ford, Neville Ford, Neil Grant, Kelly Hallam, Mark Hannaby, Emily Harmer, Chris Hart, Chris Haslam, Paul Hassall, Luke Hockley, Dan Jackson, Brian Machin, Mary Malcolm, Jim Mason, Fiona McKay, Lesley McKenna, Anna Mackenzie, Bethan Michael, Michelle Morgan, Simon Morrison, Andy Nixon, Wayne O’Brien, Brendan O’Sullivan, Mike Pumford, David Randles, Laura Ravenscroft, Kate Sillitoe, Vera Slavtcheva-Petkova, Paul Smith, Darren Sproston, Rhian Waller, Jo Warburton, Leighton Williams, Alexis Weedon, Tim Wheeler, Fiona White, Jason Wilson and Richard Woodhouse. Thanks are also due to my colleagues at Peter Lang, and in particular the illustrious and industrious Lucy Melville, with whom this is now my sixth title in as many years – and also Jasmin Allousch: always a pleasure to work with. ← vii | viii →

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Foxes and Badgers and Bears

Myths speak, if not to all times and places, then to a broad and enduring range of historical and cultural contexts, and to an eclectic variety of interpretations and interpretative frameworks, drawing together and generating often diverse and conflicting paradigms. The essences of mythological and fabulous narratives survive by virtue of their profound and ongoing relevance to human society and to the human psyche. The continuation and proliferation of such ‘memes’ (if we might for the while attach to them that fashionable designation) does not require that the themes and structures which underpin their symbolic resonance become transparent to their audiences, nor indeed to those who replicate them, as they metamorphose and bleed into all manifestations of popular culture – from children’s fiction to national news. As Carl Jung (1991: 268) supposed, ‘the myth has a direct effect on the unconscious, no matter whether it is understood or not. The fact that its repeated telling has not long since become obsolete can, I believe, be explained by its usefulness.’ For Richard Dawkins, the unconscious agency which underpins the replication of such memes reflects the lack of conscious intent behind the reproduction of individual genes. As he observes, ‘it is important to understand that none of these replicating agencies is consciously interested in getting itself duplicated. But it will just happen that the world becomes filled with replicators that are more efficient’ (1995: 147). It is the continuing efficiency and relevance of these memes which sustains them, rather than the conscious complicity of the agents of their proliferation. As Pierre Bourdieu (1977: 79) supposes, ‘subjects do not, strictly speaking, know what they are doing, that what they do has more meaning than they know.’ Yet as we build, in the words of Geoffrey Hill (1985: 15–16), recalling Hobbes, ‘as a huge myth for man the watery Leviathan’, we may suppose that some awareness of the meanings which bind and perpetuate these myths as existential, societal and ← 1 | 2 → political metaphors may support a better understanding and deployment of these narratives and their functionalities.

The former BBC news anchor Martyn Lewis famously proposed in a 1993 article for the Independent that good news stories have been ‘too frequently […] given low priority’ and argued the case that ‘positive stories […] be given a fair hearing when the day’s news agenda is discussed.’ Two years earlier, Lewis had published a best-selling humorous collection of stories about Cats in the News, which he had followed, a year later, by affording the same treatment to Dogs in the News. It should at this point be stressed that this study is not attempting to compete with Mr Lewis’ zoological optimism.

But this study does attempt to address audiences’ apparently perennial fascination with such stories, and in doing so, suggests that the enduring proliferation of such relatively soft and ostensibly unimpactful news narratives focused on tales of the natural world may often reflect the pertinence of their socio-political symbolism. Such stories are all the more influential as bearers of ideology because their ideologies are rarely laid bare. Ideologies veiled as the folksiest of folk tales are, like sugared pills, by far the easiest to swallow. As Richardson (2007: 134) reminds us, such subtextual or subliminal ideological processes ‘work through signs’ to ‘justify, smooth over and […] naturalize’ the contradictions and assumptions which underpin socio-economic and political structures. This process of naturalization takes place, in journalistic terms, through the smooth flow of narrative elaboration, the translation of complex and disjointed sequences of events into rational narratives. In short, reporters tell stories.

John Fiske (1989: 293, 296) reminds us that the ‘textual devices that control the sense of news are all embedded in a narrative form’ and that ‘stories are prewritten, they “write” the journalists […] their meanings are already in circulation.’ The journalist’s art as such is to recognize and repackage traditional or established narratives. There are no new stories; it is all old news. Thus McQueen (1998: 101) notes that news stories ‘develop the narrative qualities of soap opera or epic sagas.’ There is nothing particularly new in this idea: Vladimir Propp (1968) demonstrated how traditional folk tales follow similar structural models and employ recurring formal elements; and Propp’s work has been applied widely to popular fiction, drama and ← 2 | 3 → reportage. Indeed, the recurrent narratives of news production can be seen from psychoanalytic as well as purely narratological perspectives: Anslow (2008) has, for example, witnessed how Jungian archetypes can be seen resurfacing time and again in the news coverage offered by the redtop press.

While some may be uncomfortable with the discovery of the symbolic discourses of social, economic and political power relations in such ‘soft’ news stories, Bird and Dardenne (1988: 69) warn that any artificial dichotomy between our perceptions of so-called ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ news ‘blinds us to the way that narratives devices are used’ in all such writing within self-perpetuating symbolic structures. Bird and Dardenne (1988: 69) propose that ‘the facts, names, and details change almost daily, but the framework into which they fit – the symbolic system – is more enduring.’ The ‘totality of news’ thus comes to represent in itself an ‘enduring symbolic system’ (Bird and Dardenne 1988: 69).

News accounts are, as Bird and Dardenne (1988: 67) suppose, ‘culturally constructed narratives’ – constructed according to ‘news values’ which, for Bird and Dardenne (1988: 73), comprise the symbolic systems of ‘culturally specific story-telling codes’. The assumption and deployment of such values may for the most part represent an unconscious process, but it is one with far-reaching consequences: this is a process through which audiences learn the symbolic structures of their societies – for, as Bird and Dardenne (1988: 70) suggest, ‘news can act like myth and folklore’ and it is through myth and folklore that ‘members of a culture learn values.’

Thussu (2006: 3) has argued that ‘with the growing secularization of social relations, the traditional mythmaking and communicating institutions, such as religion, have made way for mass media to become the primary site for mythic narratives.’ Lule (2001: 15) supposes that news is mythological in that it tells ‘great stories of humankind for humankind’ – in that it represents ‘an important way a society expresses its prevailing ideals, ideologies, values and beliefs’ – drawing upon ‘archetypal figures and forms to offer exemplary models that represent shared values, confirm core beliefs, deny other beliefs, and help people engage with, appreciate, and understand the complex joys and sorrows of human life.’

Barthes (1973: 117) argues that while ‘everything can be a myth provided it can be conveyed by a discourse’ that which transforms discursive ← 3 | 4 → expression into myth is its historical or ideological pertinence: ‘one can conceive of very ancient myths, but there are no eternal ones; for it is human history which converts reality into speech, and it alone rules the life and the death of mythical language’ (Barthes 1973: 118). Barthes (1973: 118) continues: ‘ancient or not, mythology can only have an historical foundation, for myth is a type of speech chosen by history: it cannot possibly evolve from the “nature” of things.’ Insofar as news discourse transforms nature narratives into modern myths, then, it does so not because of their intrinsic naturalness but because of their historical, societal and ideological resonance.

Myths in their most epic modes speak to the construction of nationhood, and Benedict Anderson (1991: 35) witnesses within the processes of the production and consumption of what he describes as the ‘newspaper-as-fiction’ the broader development of a mythical discourse of nationhood: ‘fiction seeps quietly and continuously into reality creating that remarkable confidence of community in anonymity which is the hallmark of modern nations’ (Anderson 1991: 36). Through the homogenizing and hegemonizing effects of its mass media manifestations, discourse is, for Anderson (1988: 46), reified into the mythic fact of nationhood: ‘the convergence of capitalism and print technology on the fatal diversity of human language created the possibility of a new form of imagined community, which in its basic morphology set the stage for the modern nation.’


ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2017 (August)
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien, 2016. VIII, 222 pp.

Biographical notes

Alec Charles (Author)

Alec Charles is Head of Media at the University of Chester and co-convenor of the Political Studies Association’s Media & Politics Group. He has previously taught at universities in Japan, Eastern Europe, Cornwall and Luton, has worked as a print journalist, and has made cultural documentaries for BBC Radio 3. He is the author of Interactivity: New Media, Politics & Society, Interactivity 2 and Out of Time: The Deaths & Resurrections of Doctor Who. He is co-editor of The End of Journalism, and editor of Media in the Enlarged Europe, Media/Democracy and The End of Journalism 2.


Title: Political Animals
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