Last night I went on Newsnight to debate whether news is bad for us and what would make it better with Alain de Botton and ex hack turned spin doctor now writer, Alastair Campbell. You can watch the discussion here. But given the usual issues about time and the way the debate meandered I didn’t get to make all the points I’d have liked, so here they are:
News is not an “it”. The Adam Curtis style imagery pasted over Alain De Botton’s script was misleading and feeds a lazy cynical view that news is a conspiracy or something that we should feel superior to. News is made from the bottom up by individual reporters and producers who go out and meet people, care about finding out interesting stories and telling the world. Sometimes they disagree with those in charge. Sometimes viewers disagree with them. That tension is something programmes like Newswatch try to explore.
News alienates and depresses us
In a post-religious world, you could argue, News is what keeps us humble and connects us to eachother. My first day of work experience on the Kingston Guardian more than 25 years ago, I went with a reporter to knock on the door of a bereaved father. We’d arranged to interview him about his son, who sadly, like a number of 17 year olds every year, had died in a car accident shortly after passing his driving test. His father had got a lovely photo for us to run and I understood how news could be part of what builds and bonds a community. It mattered that his son’s death would be noted and and his brief life celebrated.
I’ve interviewed survivors or bereaved relatives of terrible crimes. In every case, it’s mattered that their stories were told. Many hoped it might help change relevant legislation.
We don’t need to live in a flooded area to empathise with those, who could so easily have been us. No, on a grand news hierarchical scale, the floods in England may not “compare” to what’s going on in the DRC, but we can value different kinds of human experience.
“Too much information”
News focusses on what’s wrong, because it’s how things might get better. The only countries that have ever really tried to focus on uplifting news have been totalitarian regimes. I encourage people to go and sit in on criminal trials and see how our legal system works. It’s an empowering experience. The articulate emails we get at Newswatch every day show that viewers are nobody’s fools. They challenge stories that are told in a lazy way, or make questionable assumptions. They ask why some stories are missing or lower down the order. Wandering around New Broadcasting House, journalists willingly come up to share stories of disagreements over editorial decisions and running orders.
De Botton claims that news numbs us with too much information when it might be better for us to be given a full historically placed story with a sense of how it might improve us. By that logic the BBC’s decision to ignore a massive approaching storm front and run hours of commentary about Nelson Mandela’s life and death was the perfect news decision. In reality nearly 2,000 viewers bothered to complain formally. Nelson Mandela’s death was not unexpected. The obituaries and predictable reactions from world leaders could have been put in full on the website. Many were shocked that the BBC had failed to give important information and warnings about storm surges that left many in fear and had implications for public safety across the North East of England. Several journalists contacted me to say they strongly disagreed with the BBC management decision. Sometimes we just need the facts.
I’ve just been a judge for the Index On Censorship Awards. All over the world, including nations we think are “normal”, newspapers and individual journalists are being bullied and threatened for trying to get information out to the public.
News focusses on villains, on good and evil
De Botton suggests that News has become a new religion. One could argue that the case is stronger in this country for saying it’s football. And almost all male politicians since Tony Blair have been jumping to declare their blokeish worship to prove they are authentic, while fuelling that giant money making corporate world.
He looks at the idea of demonised individuals who are publicly disgraced. Sometimes news is about watching, perhaps even savouring the downfall of the once mighty. Fred Goodwin’s symbolic de-knighthooding was seen by many as cathartic. But equally by many as a clever political manoeuvre by the government (headed by a former PR man) to try and evade the more difficult challenge of whether the banking system that produced him was actually going to change. All this is being debated in different arenas in the news. Embedded links on the internet mean you can follow the background to a running story as far back as you like.
News reflects the good and the bad, and the choices some people make and how we respond to a complex interchange of natural events and manmade situations. It shows us that sometimes humans can choose to respond to nobler impulses and sometimes to darker ones. Whether you believe in God or not. We can as audiences manage to be both appalled by the police coverup over Hillsborough and Plebgate, but still have admiration for the officers we see in daily court reports tackle sex traffickers and other violent criminals. . We can be appalled by the cruelty and callousness uncovered at the Mid-Staffordshire Hospital Trust, but celebrate stories of how dedicated NHS staff treated the survivors of major disasters. The Mid-Staffs scandal, incidentally, emerged not fully formed and contextualised as De Botton would like, but out of the drip drip of individual anecdotal stories of appalling patient care picked up by papers such as the Daily Mail with those “depressing” headlines about patients drinking water out of vases. That’s not about existential fear. It’s about a major wrong in a public institution that needed to be exposed.
Equally we can enjoy the odd bit of celebrity nonsense and have a laugh. A lot of celebrity “news” is not news and you won’t find it on reputable news sites. It’s PR manufactured in collusion between entertainment companies and media companies trying to make money and boost sales, for example over reality TV shows.
No one’s defending bad or lazy journalism, or unscrupulous hacks. But equally, don’t be lazy about the value of news and sneer at it, when you can see in how much of the world governments are trying to control it because they know the value of freedom of information. Take the battle going on in Egypt right now, where reporter Peter Greste and his Al Jazeera colleagues have been held for weeks without charge, just for trying to report what’s going on. As he said, in a recent letter smuggled out jail:
“We had been doing exactly as any responsible, professional journalist would – recording and trying to make sense of the unfolding events with all the accuracy, fairness and balance that our imperfect trade demands.”
I can’t think of a better definition of what news and crucially the people who make it, are about.
And you can always email questions or concerns about BBC news coverage to firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet @newswatchbbc.
UPDATE (Jan 31st) I was contacted after the broadcast by a media academic to point out that what the discussion lacked was an acknowledgement of how widely critical analysis of the news is taught in many schools now. As my teaching is mostly at University level I wasn’t in a position to comment on that. But certainly I’ve met many students including some at Clyde College in Glasgow, featured last September on Newswatch, whose critical analysis of daily news impressed me greatly.