Friday, 9 January 2009

Let's go live to our man in Ignorance

WHAT is news? I've been a journalist for more than 30 years now so you might expect me to know. But it’s not as simple as you might imagine.
The line between news and opinion has always been a bit blurred (anything you read in The Daily Mail, or The Guardian, is almost by definition a matter of opinion). But it’s so fuzzy now that many readers, viewers – and, yes, journalists – no longer seem to know the difference. Or even recognise that there is a difference.
One reason for this is the rise and rise of the 24-hour news culture.
To much of the media, especially television, accurate reporting no longer seems to matter. It’s not as important to be right as to be first. Speed drives everything.
My dad was a news junkie. When I was growing up, the family would gather once a day round the telly. If it wasn’t for the six o’clock bulletin, it would have to be for the nine o’clock showing.
The day’s news – or at least a BBC editor’s idea of what mattered – was neatly encapsulated in 25 minutes. Today News 24 is on all round the clock. And that’s just one of several competing channels.
But there isn’t 60 times as much going on in the world today as there was. It’s just that the presentation of it is spread so much thinner.
No news bulletin in 1969 would have featured shots of a reporter standing outside a building saying: "Well, there's nothing much happening here at the moment."
Yet that's exactly what most TV news now seems to consist of. For some bizarre, mind-scrambling reason it's called "live".
If that's what newspapers are having to compete with, you wonder why they have had to change so much over recent years.
Yet change they have, driven not so much by a need to compete with TV as by the realisation that they can't. Not for immediacy or speed.
What they can do is offer more comment and analysis. They can (heaven help us) fill their pages with banal and tedious waffle about "celebrities", as if the world weren't already full enough of such twaddle. More vitally, local papers can get to the stuff down your street in a way TV, radio and national papers never can. Without worrying what the background looks like.
But let's go back now to our reporter standing importantly outside a building somewhere in the world where something might be about to happen.
Last time you saw him he was standing outside a different building in a different country. Doing exactly the same thing.
Back in the studio one of his colleagues is asking him, as they always do, what's going on. And do you know what? He hasn't got a clue.
How can he have? He's only been there for a few hours.
And he's got no time to find out what's happening, beyond the shallow and obvious. Because he's got to stand there and appear on our screens every 20 minutes.
With no hard facts to impart, all he can offer is a soundbite of uninformed opinion.
But today, in Gaza, he's lucky. Someone in his team has managed to grab a fleeing victim.
It's a chance to get at the real human story, the experience of being under bombardment. What was it like?
"Not too bad, really." The girl grins under her "Palestinian" checked scarf.
Um. So what are you going to do now?
"I'm going to my grandmother's house in Russia. It should be really lovely, with all the snow. Bye – happy new year."
Would that interview ever have made it onto our screens back in the days when the news was actually edited?

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