Saturday, 28 January 2012

No News is Good News

The beginning of February will mark my six month anniversary without newspapers (see here). As you may recall, I gave up reading them as they were becoming increasingly annoying, scaremongering, sensationalist and obsessed with vapid 'celebrities'. It started as just a week of easily-swallowed cold turkey but felt so good that I carried on. I soon included the TV news as well. The daily barrage of bad news, misery, greed and tragedy - and most of it unlikely to ever have a direct effect on my life - has gone. Ignorance truly is bliss.

That said, I do occasionally catch snippets of TV news; it's unavoidable unless I completely stay away from television or the internet. And every little piece I catch reminds me of why I made the right decision. Firstly, there's the quality of the news reporting. There was a time when it restricted itself to facts. Now, every report seems fudged and opinionated. For example, during the recent sinking of the Costa Concordia cruise ship (it's not a liner as many news reports said it was) I found myself watching an early evening BBC report in which the reporter stated that 'some people' had suggested that the ship was too tall. What people? Who are they? How many of them? Where did they voice this opinion and to whom? Are they engineers or experts of some kind? Why are we paying 'some people' sufficient attention to warrant their mention on the national news? Of course, none of those questions were ever answered. Instead, as if to add insult to inanity, the reporter then visited an expert on ship design in a lab with a big water tank and a model boat where he explained that no, the ship wasn't top-heavy at all. The whole five minute segment was utterly pointless filler. There's far too much use made of these waffling unqualified 'some people say' and 'people have suggested' statements in the media. They muddy the issue for the sake of padding and sensationalism.

Even worse are so-called 'vox pops'; those short snappy interviews with people in the street. In the same broadcast, a reporter covering the story of Dr Theodora Dallas - the juror jailed for prejudicing a case by researching a defendant's background and previous convictions - decided to ask people what their views were on events. One person said that Dallas should have got more than six months for contempt of court. Another said that they thought the penalty was too harsh. A third said that he didn't see what the fuss was about and that he'd do the same if he's ever picked for jury service. So what did those vox pops add to the story? Three contrasting opinions, none of which have any relevance or authority. So why include them at at all in a supposedly factual news broadcast? As Martin Robbins wrote in The Guardian on Thursday; 'The BBC's drive to avoid bias is admirable, but - whether through laziness or fear - journalists have fallen into the trap of believing that avoiding bias means avoiding any kind of judgement. The idea that a policy or political statement might actually be objectively, empirically, scientifically just wrong is alien to such people. Instead we live in a bizarre place where it seems almost every half-baked opinion – no matter how stupid or irresponsible – must be broadcast to the world as valid and equal. In this polluted environment, attitudes to things like 'facts', 'evidence' and 'science' range from indifference to open hostility.'

Mitchell and Webb caught what I'm saying perfectly in this sketch:

And when reporters aren't presenting us with pointless diversions or vox popping, they're standing in the street outside a building where something is going on that we, and they, aren't allowed to go inside and watch. Why? The news anchor could provide exactly the same information (which is usually 'we don't know what's happening yet') without the additional cost of an outside broadcast unit and a wet reporter standing in a thunderstorm.

Oh, and I'm sorry but since when was the fact that a pop singer is getting divorced 'news'? It really, really isn't. Nor is it news that a footballer has cheated on his wife or that someone famous has opened a shop. News, people, not gossip. News!

But I reserve my biggest dollops of ire for the interviews. I've genuinely come close to screaming when I hear reporters asking people who've been through Hell: 'Are you glad it's all over?' I've felt my blood pressure rise every time a reporter asks 'What does it feel like to be free after your months of incarceration?' or 'What do you plan to do now that you're home from Iraq and reunited with loved ones?' Of course they're glad, unless they're some kind of sado-masochist in which case they'd have told their rescuers to leave them handcuffed to the radiator. And I think we can all probably guess what those soldiers are going to be doing with their partners after being separated and celibate for so long. Several times, I suspect, and in a variety of positions too.

Things get even worse in the studio and many interviews seem overly provocative and aimed at getting a reaction rather than facts. As you may know, Father Ted co-creator Graham Linehan was very vocal about a recent appearance on Radio 4's Today show - a programme supposedly about current affairs. Instead of being asked about the technical difficulties of translating a much-loved film to the West End stage, Linehan was bombarded with barbed accusatory questions aimed at forcing him to defend what he'd done. As he put it: 'The style of debate practised by the Today programme poisons discourse in this country. It is an arena where there are no positions possible except for diametrically opposed ones, where nuance is not permitted and where politicians are forced into defensive positions of utter banality. None of it is any good for the national conversation.' Martin Robbins again: 'The Today programme claims to be serious, but seems to work on the basis that the best way to enlighten viewers is to take two people and force them into a sort of intellectual-masturbation death match. Graham Linehan appeared on the show last year to discuss his adaptation of The Ladykillers and found himself ambushed by questions that weren't just hostile, but sometimes completely bizarre.'

I don't want to hear shows where the reporter has already made up his/her mind and then invites a guest in to defend themselves. That's not reportage. That's interrogation. That's not what I want from my news reports and current affairs programming. I want facts and figures, and interviews with experts who can add detail and explanation to why events have happened the way they have. I want eyewitness accounts where people tell me how an event affected them, not assumptions by newsreaders that 'the mood' is this or that 'there's a growing sense' of that. I have no fucking interest whatsoever in the marital shenanigans of Premiership Footballers or reality TV stars.

I deliberately watched the BBC News - which I still consider to be the best - at Six O'Clock yesterday and counted the number of times a reporter or newsreader voiced unsupported opinion. I counted eight instances in the first three minutes. I also looked for subtle bias in the words used by reporters; in particular adjectives such as 'horrific', 'worrying', 'terrifying' etc. that are perfectly acceptable tumbling from the lips of traumatised eye-witnesses and victims but have no place in a news report (unless repeating what others have said). I heard two in the same three minute period. I also heard phrases such as 'their resolve crumbled' rather than 'they no longer opposed' and 'dogged by rumours' rather than 'continuing rumours'. The use of emotive words like 'crumbled' and 'dogged by' create a very different picture to the more factual alternatives. It's as if the people who write the news feel the need to 'sex' the reports up. You really don't have to guys.

The news is not an entertainment show. When it stops acting like one, I will return to watching it. In the meantime, I'll get my information from other sources.

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