If your street is the ever at the epicentre of a breaking news story, there you will find them — reporters with nothing to report. Lined up like fairground barkers, their arms flapping uncontrollably, as if playing an imaginary concertina to a Stockhausen refrain that sounds somewhere deep in their brain stem, they deliver fact-light, opinion-heavy pieces to camera from the safe side of the police tape. On hearing that deskbound studio presenter’s forlorn throw to them: “What do we know, Nick?” they are off. With Pavlovian alacrity they salivate to the sound of the 24 hour news bell.
It is symbolic that the look-at-me’s are corralled just beyond the story and there they will remain. It is the done thing these days to drape a reporter some place, any place, whether it’s the lobby of the Commons or a burnt-out terraced house where toddlers died. Why? As if mere proximity alone ever signified insight? That to and fro of a two-minute package has just one role though – it eats up time.
In other days weather was something that we got over or ignored, depending whether it was happening to us or to some unfortunates somewhere else. Nowadays even the weather is news. It’s a production number, meriting days of coverage. Weather from across the world is nowadays predicted, anticipated and lived through. (Though to be fair, there’s nothing funnier than a TV reporter’s doomed attempt to broadcast and still stay standing in the teeth of a hurricane).
Attendant weather grief of various degrees is intruded upon (a ‘wet carpets on the pavement’ shot if it’s Birmingham or Brooklyn; helicopters dropping rice sacks if it’s Bangladesh).Even if the Category Four wantonly downgrades itself to merely a storm, the cameras and reporters are already in place and news of the anti-climactic anti-cyclone must still be broadcast. Of course, there is always a slot for ‘experts’ to rune-read from this singularity for signs of Armageddon. Is this our fault? Are we responsible for too much news?
Too much news began with print journalism and the advertising booms of the sixties and eighties. Polly Filler-pieces divided the burgeoning new sections of the Sundays, then the Saturdays and eventually the dailies. It wasn’t news. It was one person’s rushed-together opinion dressed as analysis adorned with a couple of quotes
It’s not just personal hygiene that has changed since the good old days in the (now virtual) street of shame. Big Bang journalism demands column inches. In this Armani-wrapped world of latter day scribblers, never mind the quality, feel the length. Managements, adept in what used to be called “time and motion” spotted that a number of the hacks in the newsroom weren’t continually tapping out stories. So, management opined, the paper could still be produced with fewer of these wastrels.
Nowadays, print journos are scared to take a day off in case they are seen to be superfluous. They avoid suggesting off-diary stuff in case it does not pan out in words on the page. The unintended consequence of this more-for-less management strategy was that some enterprising though indefensibly immoral journalists took to hacking phones as a shortcut to bylines, but that’s another news story.
Fewer people and more stuff to write is a toxic combination. Time’s Winged Chariot for dailies is not now just the 6pm or 9pm print deadline. Shovelling running stories onto the web pages ASAP has quickened the focus but coarsened the lens of understanding.
Investigative journalism — and for that phrase please read journalism — needs time and money. Jeremy Paxman’s analysis of that pit of amateurishness into which Newsnight sank says more than enough on this. And insider Paxman should know. Necessary resources departed with the 20, 30, 40 per cent staff cuts across the media over recent decades. But the advertising won’t stop and so there is this vacuum of time and space – hence the wallpaper version of news dressed up as the real thing.
If bean counters keep putting fewer baked beans in the bean tins, there are consequences. And they wonder why people aren’t reading newspapers. News is and has always been the something that “someone, somewhere does not want you to print…” You could add to that aphorism that while someone does not, a lot more will pay good money to read it. Look at Private Eye’s circulation as a case in point. Folks are savvy and they know when they see news and when the see padding.
Why does this matter? Well, firstly the edifice of civil society wants constant repair. Tie the hands of those striving to print stuff that someone does not want and you’ll get more and more wallpaper journalism that masquerades as the real stuff and lulls the senses.
Consider what powerful levers Leveson privacy rules would provide. What if the hands atop those levers were more mal-intentioned than the present barons of the governing class, or clay-footed former film and TV stars? Replace Max Mosley with, say, his father Sir Oswald Mosley and what else might become volksverhetzung and suppressed?
In a world of bread and circuses, bad news drives out good. Flaccid news has shifted from one of life’s necessities to the seductively decadent circus side of the equation. Ask yourself, though, what will happen after we sit through the doors falling off the clowns’ jalopy too many times and thus tire of the circus utterly?
Is there a solution? Doubtful — unless turns out to be a consequence of a very nasty resolution from a wider decline and fall.