The BBC News “Most Popular” Box

Does dross like “The truth about single women and cats”
count as news? SIMON PAGE says no.

BBC News dogs libya Simon Page

I have been slightly concerned about the BBC News website for some time now. In essence, there is a serious disparity between the the real, actual, headline news stories and what its visitors, apparently, want to read.

Basically, for those unfamiliar with the BBC News website (but who, bafflingly enough, found their way here,) the BBC display the stories which they feel are most important at the very top of the page. Right now I bet it’s Libya. Wait I’m just going to check. Yep, it’s Libya.

And then they put the other news stories in categories down the page, and the size of the headline gets smaller and smaller as stories become more and more insignificant, until eventually the text is barely readable and it’s not really news at all; it’s just chance occurances, pseudo-science and anniversaries of things which were probably news at some point in history, but aren’t now. That’s all fine. In fact, it’s how most news websites work.

But then there’s the “Most Popular” box, where the BBC put the ten stories which get the greatest number of pageviews. (You have to admit, it’s a pretty well-named box.) This is also fine – it gives us a nice idea of what “we the people” think is important. If the editors think that the Budget is the big story but we choose to read about Syria then this will become apparent, which is very democratic, and so really sticks it to Rupert Murdoch’s BNews InternationalB conglomerate.

The only problem is that apparently what we think is important and interesting actually turns out to be utter drivel. For example, at the moment the headline stories are “Libya rebels sweeping westwards” and “Radiation soars at Japan reactor”, which are kind of a big deal.

The “Most Popular” stories are “Defecating dog sparks US shootout” and “What exactly is a Cornish pasty?”

Seriously, Britain? I mean, I expected this from America, but not from you. The only thing that an article entitled “What exactly is a Cornish pasty?” need contain are the words “It’s a beef pastry” and a link to the Wikipedia article. In fact, you can bet your shoes that’s how the writer did his research.

Yes, the news can be a bit depressing sometimes and, yes, an in-depth comparison of the Consumer Prices Index with the Retail Prices Index might be a bit boring. But still, this makes us look like children running amok in Tesco, gorging themselves on the Confectionery aisle (preferably the Bar Hill store which is approximately the size of Qatar and certainly  visible from space). Sure, maybe we glance over at the “Fruit and Veg” headline stories now and then, but only before diving headlong back into the sugary depths of “Pooh sticks competition under way on River Thames.”

Why is this important? Well for one thing, I’m pretty sure this is how despots get into power. You see, I keep getting the guilty feeling that I don’t read enough World News. Perhaps you know the feeling: suddenly, From Our Own Correspondent mentions that Burkina Faso went to the polls yesterday and you realise that you can’t name any Burkinabé  presidents (it’s the demonym; look it up). In fact, I probably can’t name anyone whatsoever from the whole country. (I do happen to know it’s capital: the inexplicably racist-sounding Ouagadougou. Thank you, Sporcle.)

This is problematic because if some extremist group got into power there, none of us would be any the wiser, which means our Government would be less inclined to get involved and so on. A scary slippery slope.

It’s also important because the longer we go on reading the trivial news stories, the further we wander down the path of the uninformed, which culminates (of course) in the United States of America, where less than half of the population know which country dropped the first nuclear bomb.

Plus it’s just plain depressing. A side-by-side comparison of the stories which are actually important with the ones we’re reading makes for a disheartening window on modern society. It’s like when they have a minute’s applause instead of a minute’s silence at a football match because nowadays we can’t be trusted not to bawl obscenities or otherwise sully a profound and dignified memoriam which takes all of sixty seconds.

What can be done about this? Well, it’s simple really. Vote with your mouse. Next time you’re on the BBC News website and you hover over “Burglary suspect falls down well“ or “Space station gets new store room” (actually, that one sounds quite interesting) simply also open “Welsh assembly law-making powers start after May election”. Ideally next you should read the Wales article, but given that the Most Popular box is only ranked by pageviews, the only difference is that you’ll be woefully uninformed when Cardiff starts developing WMDs, so who’s to know?