Edinburgh 2005: Birt lectures, Greer criticises, and journalists debate how gruesome the news can be

By Caitlin Pike

From John Birt to Germaine Greer, speakers at this year’s Edinburgh
Television Festival delivered a “could do better” message to
journalists.

They called for more emphasis to be placed on context and
explanation to improve the public’s understanding of news and provide a
clearer reflection of reality.

In ‘X-Rated News’ – a session
looking at new challenges journalists face as images become more
graphic and accessible – broadcaster and former hostage John McCarthy
said it was “fundamental to know what you are broadcasting” and that
journalists should be aware of where stories came from and what the
aims of those providing them with information were.

Both Channel
4’s head of news and current affairs, Dorothy Byrne, and Channel 4
News’s chief foreign correspondent, Lindsey Hilsum, called for more
graphic images to be broadcast so that viewers grasped their full
horror.

Hilsum said: “Reality is not what you see on TV. We need
to tell the truth, not the half truth. We should show more – in the
name of providing context and understanding – not in a prurient way for
its own sake but for reality and truth and understanding the reasons
for gratuitous violence. We also need to be aware of what our
governments are doing as well as the terrorists.”

Byrne said she was concerned that people did not understand the enormity of war from what they saw on television.

In
the MacTaggart Memorial Lecture, Birt echoed former BBC political
editor Andrew Marr’s views on political reporting and said: “Public
service broadcasting would serve the nation better if it shifted the
balance of itspolitical journalism towards depth of analysis; towards
insight and substance; towards honest, patient inquiry – if it focused
less on the fevered preoccupations of the Westminster village and
rather more on better informing a mature democracy.”

In a session
on ‘The Power of Documentaries’, critically acclaimed documentary maker
Adam Curtis said journalists had joined with politicians in the three
years after 9/11 to create a climate of fear in order to justify
foreign policy: “The threat from terrorism was reported simplistically
after 9/11, leading to the rise of political fear overwhelming rational
thought. People believed there was a threat to the life of the nation.”

Curtis
said it was only recently that journalists had come round to the idea
that a sophisticated global network of terrorists, residing in complex
bunkers,did not exist. ” We must avoid simplification and not start a
witch hunt against Islamists,” he warned, adding that he believed
journalists should question what they are told by government far more
carefully.

Greer asked that audiences be “empowered” to better
understand the news and how it is made, and said she had concerns about
the ability of viewers to question what they see on the news.

“People are unaware of how images are pushed and pulled,” she said.

She
claimed audiences needed to understand how news was “cut and slanted”
so that they could “negotiate their scepticism and ask what really
happened”.

She added that the Stockwell tube shooting was
misreported because eyewitnesses recounted what they thought had
happened, partly because they wanted to be on TV.

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