In which I wonder about the whole rolling news thingummyjiggle

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.

In which I identify what is news

List number one: the list of things that are (or could be) News

Man bites dog, man bites fruit loaf and finds a mouse inside, man bites fruit loaf and finds a tiny dog inside, income tax rises, Nobel prizes, freak tornadoes in Devizes, the storming of embassies, the expulsion of diplomats, new information on the effects of trans-fats, Afghans killing NATO forces, NATO killing Afghan civilians, “honour” killings, military killings, violent killings, generally killings, revolutions and natural disasters (including those in places a long way from here involving people who do not look like me), industrial actions, warring factions (unless said warring exists only on Twitter, in which case, No), changes in levels of homelessness, changes in levels of joblessness, cuts to legal aid, what expenses MPs get paid, whatever Justice Leveson says, what the Hillsborough Independent Panel already said, international politicians who are suddenly dead, the results of major sporting events, legislation requiring working ladies be treated the same as gents, cases of discrimination, unexpected shifts in the wealth of the nation, leaks of chemicals from power stations, also leaks of radiation, rates of sexual assault conviction, the awarding of major prizes for fiction, suicide bombings, other sorts of bombings, welfare benefit reform, health reform, education reform, and other things which aren’t the norm.

List number two: the list of things that are not, never have been, and never will be news

Kate Middleton’s boobies.

So I hope that’s clear. I’m sure there are lots of other things that are or aren’t news. Please add your own suggestions in the comments. Then we can make a definitive list, send it to news editors across the world and never have to sit through reports on what some people who aren’t important or interesting reckon about some random sleazy photos ever ever again. And thus, the world will be a better place.

In which democracy isn’t working

There is a well-known political saying, variously attributed to Joseph De Maistre, George Bernard Shaw and Alexis de Toqueville (if you’re a proper pedant, I *think* Toqueville is right, but feel free to correct me in the comments) that “In a democracy, the people get the government they deserve.” Looking at our current rulers I find this depressing. So just in case any of you were feeling prematurely bouncy with festive cheer, I thought a nice little blog post about the inadequacy of government might bring you all back down to earth.

Here’s how a representative democracy is supposed to work. Some people have ideas about how stuff should be and make those ideas public for the masses to consider. The ideas are scrutinised by other people with different ideas who point out the potential pitfalls. All of these people’s ideas are further scrutinised by an independent and rigorous free press, and by an informed and interested electorate. That electorate then pick the people whose ideas seem least likely to bankrupt the country. The winning people form a government and have a go at putting their ideas into action, all the time having their most foolhardy excesses checked and exposed by the opposing people, the judiciary and that lovely free press we heard about earlier. To break my own rule about never quoting a talking advertising animal in public, “Simples.”

But that whole system seems to have broken down. Rather than having politicians who believe stuff, we have a generation of politicians who see their role as being to identify what voters want and then present an impression that they agree, regardless of whether they do or not. We have no bravery in politics anymore, no willingness to say “I think this. Here’s why it’s a good idea,” and accept that if people don’t agree you won’t win.

We have reached a position where the suggestion that a politician has a definite ideology is seen as a weakness. Ed Milliband, for example, was elected Labour leader largely because he was seen as being willing to move the party back to the left of UK politics. That viewpoint won him considerable support amongst the trade union wing of the party, but he’s spent the months since trying to disassociate himself from the “Red Ed” tag. He hasn’t supported public sector unions on strike action. He’s been largely absent from the debate on cuts in areas like welfare benefits and legal aid. Reading his press coverage it is increasingly difficult to identify what Ed really thinks.

I’ve picked on Ed Milliband here. I could just as easily have gone for Dave or Nick or George or even Tony. None of these are politicians interested in standing out, in looking or sounding different, in making an impassioned case for a particular set of ideas. They’re interested in being elected. They may have passionate ideas about what they’d do if they were elected, but they don’t us to know what those ideas are.  

And that’s not entirely their fault. They are the babies of an informal system of political education that irons out difference and passion at every turn. We have a generation of politicians who attended the same schools, the same universities, worked in the same politics-related consultancies, and entered parliament with little or no work experience outside the Westminster bubble. They sound bland and samey because they are bland and samey.

A generation ago our Prime Minister was a grammar-school scholarship girl, who studied Chemistry and worked as a research chemist in the food industry whilst unsucessfully candidating in Dartford. Somewhere alongside the job and the political campaigning she also managed to qualify as a barrister. Voters also knew where she stood. She was, in my opinion, pretty much as wrong as one can be about most things, but at least you knew what she thought.

But that’s all changed. Telling voters what you think is no longer considered important. Getting the most favourable coverage, causing least offence and not making a gaffe are the new priorities. In political debate, meaning has been the primary casualty of the new media-savvy approach. Politicians are concerned about things like “hard-working families,” “the squeezed middle” and “creating a Big Society.” The broader the brushstrokes, the less specific the message, the less likely it is to offend.

And political reporting isn’t helping. Rather than questioning and scrutinizing politicians, journalists often simply copy and paste the pre-approved quotes from the press release and crack on with the rest of their day. There are reasons for this, ranging from commercial pressures in the newspaper industry to individual networks of friends and contacts too precious to displease, but too little political journalism is currently focussed on scrutinizing policies and ideas. (There are some exceptions – I know I’ve bigged it up before, but please allow me another quick plug for C4’s rather brilliant FactCheck blog). 

Where people outside the mainstream political parties attempt to throw open the discussion, news coverage still tends to engage more with the people and the side-controversies, than with the content of any real debate. Thus, coverage of the Occupy London camp focusses on whether the protestors really are using their tents overnight, which members of the St Paul’s clergy have resigned, and what legal action is being proposed/taken, rather than on what the protestors are asking for and how/if politicians are responding.

There are options to how we fix this inadequate state of affairs. We could jettison the whole democracy thing and just have a dictator. I’m more than happy to volunteer for the role, providing I can be known as Queen Alison, rather than President or Prime Minister. It just sounds so much foxier, and implies ownership of good jewellery, which I like.

However, populaces all over the world are currently rising all up and getting a bit fighty to try to win for themselves the voting rights we have taken for granted for too long, so maybe we should give democracy another shot. To make it work you all need to agree to make yourselves informed voters. It’s tricky but doable. Google will help you. Even mainstream newspapers will help if you teach yourself to read them with a critical eye (Andrew Marr’s book My Trade has a great section on how to sift the content from the fluff in an average newspaper article.) I’d also warmly encourage you to ask questions of your own representatives. We can all do this. Come the revolution I’ll be at my computer sending a tersely worded email to my MP.

At the same time, journalists need to start doing some actual journalism. Between us we might be able to start to pressure our elected representatives into saying what they really think.

Finally, our politicians need to collectively agree that, on balance, they probably ought to get out more and talk to people who don’t look and sound just like them. They could all agree to get jobs for a few years and only stand for future election after a full decade of doing something completely different. That might give them time outside the Westminster pressure cooker to grow a personality and, maybe even decide what they really think.