all too often it’s just a comic, not much more
I don’t think Chris Dillow is right. Chris argues that the whole sordid fiasco about the Disasters Emergency Committee broadcast suggests the BBC should stop doing radio and TV news and put the money into long form reportage and documentaries instead; this, he reckons, would get people to read newspapers, would create a lot of really good reporting, and would channel traffic to great BBC bloggers. Further, he argues, broadcast news is usually content-free free content at best, and active misinformation at worst, and therefore we’d be better off with less of it.
I disagree. First of all, however, I agree that conventional broadcast news is crap. TV news is the worst of the lot – it’s very telling that the look-and-feel and the conventions are unchanging, and only the voiceover, the actual text component, carries any information. Interestingly, just as turning the sound down on the news eliminates all its content and replaces it with surreal attitudinising, providing all the furniture of TV news seems to do the opposite for the participants; whatever the text is, it’s on telly, and therefore they read it out. You ask Chris Morris.
But then, yesterday evening, I turn on the BBC radio news to hear a BBC journalist discussing the BBC with a BBC executive. She asks the great panjandrum “if this decision might have been influenced by recent situations”. Recent situations? It sounds like South African or East German radio news; presumably both of them, and their real audience – politicians and other BBC execs – know what they are saying, but I don’t. It must be either Gaza, or else Russell Brand, or conceivably the Hutton inquiry.
To put it another way, they were scared. This went on for twenty miles at motorway speeds; apparently broadcasting the DEC appeal would not in itself have endangered BBC impartiality, but the reaction to it might have. Put it another way: we’re scared of being beaten up by politicians, PR, astroturfers, Richard Littlejohn, etc. Vaclav Havel told a story of a village butcher who put a sign in the window on Revolution Day every year that said “Workers of the world, unite!” Of course, he didn’t do this because he hoped for unity among the workers of the world; he did it because the government said so. But what if the government had asked him to put up a sign saying “I am afraid and therefore obedient”?
Good point. He might have resisted; more likely he’d have found reasons to half-comply, or comply ineffectively. Perhaps he would have been out of town, or the sign would have fallen down in the night. Just a coincidence. And that is, after all, roughly what happened; when there was a further challenge to the authority of the Party, nobody wanted to put up the sign, and the whole thing fell down.
But there is a problem. You may think that broadcast news is fundamentally crappy, but this doesn’t mean it isn’t significant. The BBC retiring from the field would leave a lot of political space open to all kinds of availability entrepreneurs. The broadcast TV market would be left to the flaky (Five), the flaky (ITN), and the Murdoch. And you can’t base any plan on more people reading the Guardian or the FT or the Morning Star for that matter.
Huge efforts are made to influence the Big News; here, we have the bizarre tale of Glen Jenvey, the expert on online jihadis who knew everything there was to know about the ones who were his sockpuppets, until he was exposed by some truly great blogging. Then, we have the news that Blackfive is actually an arm of a mercenary company, which seems to think it’s an “online intelligence agency”. (Do they get comments from international arms dealers? Perhaps signed “Ed.”)
We should be chary of letting go any of the zone of sanity, which the BBC is still just within. Certainly, Chris is wrong to think that “news gathering” should be cut; I rather think that if he is right, everything else should go, and all resources go into journalism. High gloss is a profit centre for the BBC, but the public has a direct interest in an alternative source of reportage. After all, how much blog can be generated from one BBC story? Nobody else is going to maintain this raw capacity, unless they want to lie systematically.