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It’s real life! Just beware the distorted lens

Enter the warped land of the documentary and you could be forgiven for assuming the topics they often focus their beady little wobbly cams on are like the broadcasting equivalent of your proverbial local bus. Essentially, it only needs one fly-on-the-wall screening of an in-depth analysis of a subject then all of a sudden, another similar broadcasting brand gets to grip with this suddenly ‘hot’ topic.

And so it was last week, when ‘Secrets for Sale’ – a programme following the features team at Real People magazine going about their day-to-day business of creating a weekly real life magazine – was aired on BBC1. Three nights later, C4 screened Cutting Edge’s ‘My Daughter Grew Another Head’ detailing an assortment of journalists, readers and the people who willingly share their stories in this sector of the print media.

As someone who’s spent much of her journalistic career writing almost every type of human interest story you could possibly imagine (believe me, dear reader, the truth is far weirder – and indeed more interesting – than fiction) for these titles and many others like them, on one level I was savouring every second of both these shows. It was a pretty odd sensation to see so many familiar faces and former desks where I’d sat working as a freelancer – yes, right there on my TV screen!

I wasn’t the least bit surprised they focused on the more salacious and seedy side of the women’s real life magazine market – which remains huge, compared to the sales figures of aspirational glossies such as Cosmopolitan. After all, this apparently neutral view of ‘the truth’ behind the ins and outs of this world was being filtered through the decidedly dumb and ultimately thick lens of so-called ‘investigative’ television.

After the final credits had rolled, I still found myself asking one question. Why do the middle classes get so affronted by someone (who’s usually broadly-speaking working class), agreeing to share their personal story in print and receiving a fee from the magazine they appear in, for their time and trouble? For far too long, access to the non-news media was effectively out-of-reach to large swathes of the British public. And then real life magazines came along. You can shout ‘patronising’ and ‘exploitative’ as loud as you like, but why does telling your story to a broadsheet – which will also be printed to the fit the angle they want – without receiving payment give you any high ground? In many cases, freelancers might offer the same story to that’s life! as to The Guardian. It’s the same ‘truth’ but with distinctly different audiences.

Throughout both these shows, I was feverishly tweeting (updating on Twitter, for those who aren’t fluent in social media) with other seemingly Guardian-worshipping viewers. The sheer venom and ignorance in their messages was unnerving and left a distinctly bitter taste in my mouth. Real life magazines may not be the reading matter of choice for one group in society but they have as much right to exist on the newstand as their glossier and perfume-scented cousins.

Now, let me step off my soap box, as I have more news about Sheffield’s bid to become the UK’s first City of Culture 2013.

Last Friday, I caught the Radio 4 show ‘You and Yours’ which profiled my great home city and discussed the possible economic benefits this award would bring to Sheffield. University research, conducted to determine the financial impact for Liverpool after the city had gained its title as European City of Culture, concluded the award had brought 9.7m additional visitors to the area and the overall economic impact totted in at a hefty £753m.

Sheffield City Council have set aside £150,000 to spend on the bidding process and project the economic impact on the city if the bid’s successful could be around £10m.

In these austerity-ridden times, who can deny this prospect sounds especially welcome….whatever your taste in magazines?

Happy reading!

Links: my-daughter-grew-another-head-and-other/4od