The Disraeli Room

The Disraeli Room

Blog Post

Broadcast news is debased, it needs to take itself seriously

17th November 2014

Make your own pick, but mine would be the spectacle, a little while ago, of Kirsty Wark ‘interviewing’ the Cookie Monster from the Muppet Show on Newsnight.

The point? Who knows, other than it was someone’s idea of a good laugh, largely at Wark’s expense.

What it did do, was to diminish Newsnight’s stature, but many might think that was well under way. Meanwhile, on the Today programme, on BBC R4, ‘light-hearted’ items are constantly being aired, tiny sugar granules of fun to sprinkle over all the serious stuff, in a vain attempt to make the rest more palatable, as if the truth ever can be.

This is not about the BBC, though. All broadcast news programmes are at it: television, radio, cable, satellite. Newspapers, of course, have been doing it for years, but they have much more space in which to separate out the serious from the trite, the upbeat sports news from the downbeat international crises.

Broadcasters are – at least they say they are – forced to jam it all together in a precious few minutes: a few words along with those ‘telling’ images. They have to package material, wrap in all together; make a proper show of it. And, indeed, making news as a show, an entertainment, like any other programme, is hard-wired into news broadcasters’ psyches.

It was aired many decades ago now, but the finest parody of this is still to be found in Network, Peter Finch’s last film (it got him a posthumous best actor Oscar), where he plays a deranged newscaster, to Faya Dunaway’s equally deranged – because she is driven entirely by the ratings – news executive. Finch’s character goes mad on air, and the studio rebrands him as the ‘mad prophet of the airways’, as they watch the ratings soar.

In real life, news – because it deals with information (facts are sacred) – was seen as a sacred trust for broadcasters to have and to hold, from the very start of radio, and then television. It held a special place; its boundaries were set, its protocols rigid, designed to ensure the public got the message about serious matters.

The pressure for ratings – sheer numbers of listeners and viewers – has been the bane of news. When the BBC held a monopoly it did not matter. After ITV began, it mattered a lot. The problem – perceived to this day – is holding onto viewers at all costs. This means that news is just another programme, measured on this crude scale, just like any other. It has to keep viewers, to deliver them to the next show, just like the show before, and the one after. Why? To keep them on this channel, and no other: to provide the fodder for advertisers to gorge on.

Many years ago broadcast news adapted to take account of this brutal televisual reality. Upbeat stories were added at the end of news broadcasts, to enable audiences to take away something positive from the unrelenting diet of reality.

This is intimately joined to the concept of a homogeneous audience.

The idea of a homogenous audience, patent nonsense from the start (even of radio broadcasting), has persisted. In this model, news has to be all things to all men – and women. Alongside this, is a view that explanation has constantly to be re-iterated. Try listening to daily news output – you may, for the purposes of this experiment channel hop at will – to see how long you can bear an unadulterated diet of news. You will quickly find any one item crawls along, hardly ever adding information, simply repeating it.

And simple is the bon mot: news output in general assumes its audience has the brains of a retarded child. In a rigidly organized, top-down, world of broadcast news – ‘we are the active disseminators, you are the passive receivers’ – this lent a spurious legitimacy to the system; no longer is this true.

The heterogeneous and wildly fragmented audiences today have a choice of dozens of broadcast news outlets, with a few dedicated solely to information gathering. These channels extend far beyond national boundaries, offering very different perspectives on what is happening in the world. Of these, perhaps the most startling – and intellectually interesting – is Al Jazeera.

Beyond these traditional, and still expanding number of channels, there is the entire internet, offering written, audio and video news directly from participants to audiences, alongside so called citizen journalism. Crude it may be and, more often than not, entirely partisan, but it is alive and kicking and growing like an unruly child: bold, antsy, often angry, demanding attention.

Although older audiences may choose to stick with what they know, domestic broadcast news, the scope for other input is huge. Our broadcasters more and more often use this immense uncontrolled output to scope out their own programmes, but seem hardly to be aware how available it is to the entire audience. This, truly, is Pandora’s Box and we have opened it.

More than at any time in its history, broadcast news is far too important to be trivialized. It needs right now to take itself more seriously again, before audiences just completely laugh it off, along with its presenters.

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