I have decided that if I want to listen to ‘news’ then I shall do so on Radio 3. This is not because there is a better class of news on that channel, it is because it is actually news. I have become increasingly tired of so-called news on Radio 4. There is incredibly little of it. Most of the transmission comprises repetition or comment. My hearing is good. The repetition serves only to annoy and the comment is generally unwanted. My time is precious and all I really want to hear is news. If there is anything I’m interested in then I will seek out further elucidation myself, thank you very much. I will concede that the ‘news summaries’ on Radio 4, where news is compressed into a minute or so, are also bearable but I think the Radio 3 versions are better.
Television news is of course far worse. Take the 10 pm flagship news, shifted from 9 pm to ‘compete’ with the ‘other’ channel, as though news was some kind of race. The programme starts with someone telling you what the headlines are. In due course the item is read out (repeating the headline and action shot). Almost invariably, when you think you have had the story and worked out its significance, you are passed over to some specialist. If it is anything vaguely political then the poor sod has to be found standing outside No 10, whatever the weather. Now let us just think about this. Are we being invited to believe that he or she has just stepped out from No 10 having been briefed by the PM himself? Or that someone important might go in or out and pass on some valuable titbit? What utter nonsense! How much are the taxi fares that must be run up in order to deliver these pundits to their various outdoor stations to pretty much repeat something said already in the studio? Then we have the ‘balanced interview’ where someone who has something to say (because they are, for example, the subject of the news) must be interviewed alongside someone dug up to put forward some contrary point of view (even where there is no realistic opposing proposition). This may or may not be good sport, but it isn’t news.
Then we have to contend with the opinion of the average bod-in-the-street, often lobbed in for good measure. Why? Who cares what the opinion is of some carefully identified self-selecting ‘random typical’ person? If I have been given some news I will or will not have my own opinion, finely honed after many years. Worst, and least newsworthy of all, is the opinion of someone involved in some harrowing event. Typical of this kind of thing might be an interview with some ‘involved person’ telling us that they think that the carnage at the Nell Gwynne Tearooms is terrible and Jack the tea-urn operator (who was 89) will be terribly missed after falling into the ravine, and who’s going to look after the dog? I think this kind of stomach churning stuff is mandatory output on the Media Studies curriculum and is called ‘human interest’. What, exactly, do you expect someone to say when granddad has just died in a plane crash? I think I can work it out and in any case this is hardly broadcasting at its most objective. Is it actually designed to be tear-jerking? If so I would go as far as to say these kinds of story can be upsetting to certain people and I am not at all sure of the ethics of it all. Why’s it here? Is anyone asking for it? I’ll be the judge of terribleness thank you, just give me the facts. Some of this must surely be padding and the outcome is excessively slow and ponderous reportage after which time it emerges we have actually heard only about 6-8 news stories. Across the entire planet, the BBC has only identified that small number of ‘stories’ to tell us about in an entire half-hour slot. Is it likely this is all that has happened that is important? This seems to me a very odd approach to news and is perhaps more redolent of the need to entertain.
A recent analysis by me of a BBC TV news broadcast revealed five stories summarized in an initial headline slot, followed by eight news stories (I ignored sports slot and the eight includes the five that were already headlined). All eight passed us across to their specialists deposited variously around the planet and five had additional interviews, one in the studio with someone who had already acted as the expert in order that questions could be asked. One story wasn’t really news but something of documentary nature that could have been broadcast on another night, presumably such things are kept to pad events out to half an hour (as news broadcasts must always be the same length however much news there is). Eight stories for a national news broadcast doesn’t really feel very satisfactory, especially when spread over 25 minutes or so. Frankly, for the news content, I could easily have absorbed it in ten and would rather have had the time spent with more stories. A reputable newspaper would be carrying maybe thirty stories or so.
A particular triumph of TV news, also echoed on Radio 4, is cutting across to some special correspondent who contributes absolutely nothing, but is ashamed to say that he (or she) has nothing to add. I recall a discomforted Royal Correspondent who simply (but long-windedly) speculated what might be happening in the Palace (outside which he was parked at our expense) instead of simply saying that he had nothing to add to the report already given, where a palace statement had merely been read out. It would have been better for us and kinder to him simply to have cut it. In any event, this is not news.
We then have the occasional spectacle of a clueless interviewer asking endless unprepared, inane and unimportant questions of some worthy or other and who then succeeds in running out of time just as something interesting is about to escape, and making it sound like the poor interviewee is at fault. Enough! The Today programme seems particularly adept at mismanaging its interviews in this way (though if there were fewer interruptions from so-called interviewers who love the sound of their own voices then it would be better – one can here them itching to interrupt at any moment until they finally explode, cutting off the flow of the poor interviewee as we lurch to some new prejudice). Another favourite of certain people on Newsnight (which I understand really is not a news broadcast, but it makes a point) is for the interviewer to wade in on the basis that events are known to indicate certain things and to crucify the interviewee accordingly. It is hugely amusing when, early on, it emerges beyond any doubt that the facts are very different indeed. Of course the presenter hasn’t prepared anything for this out-turn and, reluctant to ask anything off his or her own initiative has to plough on with the now-irrelevant scripted stuff and looking very foolish and uncomfortable for doing so, no doubt having to listen to panicked instructions from the producer through the earpiece at the same time. Good! serves them right! This is not news. All fairness to Paxman, he generally will do his own thing but some of the others are hopeless when wrong-footed by their own poor research.
Another peril of TV news which can’t be done on radio is the licensed misuse of stock footage. Let us assume the item might be about railways. If the item doesn’t lend itself to its own photo-story then stock photographs are used. At this point we are treated like children. Say the item is about Company X Trains. It is evidently beyond all expectation that we can absorb that Company X is being discussed so we are shown their logo. With equal lack of expectation that we might know what a train is, we are then shown a picture of a train. Anybody’s train will do, because we have been shown the logo of Company X first. If the item is previewed, we are shown a flash of the same wrong train / plane / bus / car factory then as well. And so this goes on. If it is a disaster story then hurried, brief stock footage of something vaguely relevant is just repeated endlessly, however irrelevant to the story, especially if the reporter at the scene is talking via a phone and there is nothing else to entertain us on the screen at that moment. There must be a better way of doing all this, surely?
I shall stop here and forebear drawing attention to other annoyances, such as scrolling banner across screen saying ‘breaking news’ (it is surely internal jargon – much on a news broadcast will surely be new news to the listener or viewer, or is it a health warning that it is so new that the studio hasn’t had time to dumb it down for us yet?). Nor will I say anything about the new profession of auto-cue reading seemingly being a more important art than news compilation. I really won’t.
I must confess before closing that whatever I have said needs to be taken in the context that I have actually watched and tried to absorb continental and even American news broadcasts. OK, that is indeed cause for reflection! We in Britain are, I think, more professional about it all. It won’t undercut my basic thrust about cutting the clichés and gimmicks and giving me news.
I confess to getting so annoyed at “Speculation at Ten” that I can barely watch it without shouting at the screen and if I want to know what is happening a quick skim at online news enables me to grasp at a glance anything I think I need to (or want to) know about, from which point I can dig further if I am inclined. If I want to be spoon fed then it is Radio 3 for me, though the BBC World Service news isn’t bad. If I wan’t to indulge in television news I’ll dig out my ‘Drop the Dead Donkey’ DVDs. This can’t be comedy : it must be how it is…