Ok. A bit of housekeeping before we settle down to some serious blogging business. First off, did you all have pleasant festive seasons, and are you now cheerfully embracing the whole 2015 thing? I hope you did, and you are. You will also notice that it’s Tuesday and there is a shiny new blogpost for your delectation. Well that’s the way we roll now. Tuesday is the new whatever day I was blogging on before. I remember – I didn’t really have a system, did I? So, Tuesday is the new slightly random and not terribly predictable day, but with the exciting development that it will be much much more predictable. It will come after Monday and before Wednesday like, well like Tuesday essentially. Mark it in your diaries, and feel free to start a sweepstake on how quickly I’ll forget.
The world’s attention, so far in 2015, has been largely focussed on France, after the attacks by gunmen at the offices of the Charlie Hebdo satirical magazine, the subsequent shooting outside a metro station, and the two hostage sieges that followed. It’s been a bit of a bruising week for liberty, but it’s not the first battering that that ideal has withstood and it won’t be the last. The idea that the pen is mightier than the sword has been around long enough to become a cliché for good reason. Pens create ideas, which are notoriously tricky to kill off. They tend to thrive wherever there are people getting together, talking, writing and thinking.
But I don’t actually want to talk about the gunmen, not least because being talked about, and having the idea of the terror they created fed and nurtured with each retelling, is very much what they would have wanted. Today, I’m not even going to talk about the cartoonists, police officers, and shoppers who were killed, because they deserve much better words than I’m able to offer. Today I’m going to talk about another group who help to create the ideas we all share. Today I want to talk about the rolling news channels.
Twenty-four hour news isn’t a new phenomena. Sky News started broadcasting in the UK in 1989. The BBC’s dedicated round the clock news channel started in 1997. In America, CNN dates back to 1980. So it’s not new, but the world around the news channels has changed, and I don’t think the news channels have changed with it. Or in fact, I think they have changed, but not in the right way.
When the BBCs news channel started the internet was a baby. Nobody in their right mind would have expected to use it get updates on what was actually going on in the world right now. If they tried what they would probably have discovered that what was mainly happening right now was that their modem was making a weird crackling noise that sounded like it was trying to send a fax. I sort of feel I ought to footnote the terms ‘modem’ and ‘fax’ for our younger viewers. I’m not going to. They’re enjoying all the lovely benefits of youth – I don’t see why they should get to actually know stuff as well.
Obviously, the internet has grown up a bit since then, in terms of technology, if not in content. Now you can read live updates on the butterfly flapping its wings on one side of the planet, when the resulting tornado on the other is still pottering around at ‘light breeze’ levels. The 24 hour news channels are fighting to keep up, pushed by the immediacy of social media sites to report what’s happening right now this very second. And that’s a problem because what’s happening right now this very second is usually confused and confusing, and that confusion leads to the breakdown in the very important journalistic distinction between ‘things that are actually demonstrably true’ and ‘random speculation.’
There is, I think, still a major role for TV news in the internet age, but it’s role shouldn’t be to try to ape the worst of the internet, by feverishly trying to keep up. Instead, the TV news channels need to accept that there is no way that they are going to be able to ‘reckon stuff’ quicker or more pithily than twitter, and that’s ok, because that isn’t news. I’m weighing in in support of 24 hour news channels that are largely made up of a picture of the newsreader drinking a cup of tea whilst the scrolling update across the bottom of the screen reads, ‘It’s a bit unclear what’s happening at the moment. Bear with us.’ These would be news channels with no speculation, only news – that can definitely include explanation of the facts behind the news, but absolutely no people just reckoning stuff (even if the stuff they might reckon is hysterically funny and absolutely terrifying in equal measure).
So there you go – that’s my radical idea. News that is only made up of news: no speculation; no guessing what’s going on as it’s happening; maybe even some actual journalism that amounts to more than reading out what other people have said on twitter. My alternate plan to ‘fix’ TV news, which will absolutely and definitely be brought in just as soon as I am Queen, is to make it a legal requirement that all news broadcasts flash the word ‘NEWS’ or the word ‘SPECULATION’ across the bottom of the screen at all times, depending on which is currently being offered. It wouldn’t stop them just reckoning stuff, but at least it would be nice and clear.
So there you go. That’s my thought for the week. Come back same time next week and I’ll try to have another one.