The public doesn't deserve the news

By Adrian Monck

IF YOU’VE ever watched Cash in the Attic you’ll be familiar with the formula. Members of the public scour their homes for unwanted heirlooms and treasures to flog off in aid of donkey charities, hip replacements or cruises. Someone fondles a Meissen Shepherdess and says, "It’s lovely, but it’s been in a cardboard box since the last move." Then they get rid of it.

Let the same lot loose in Wood Lane, Long Acre, Gray’s Inn Road or any of British broadcasting’s prime public service palaces with the same formula, and 10-to-one the treasure they’d choose to part with, reluctantly, is television news. The public doesn’t deserve television news as currently mandated by public service, because it doesn’t need it. Forget for the moment that books, newspapers, travel, theatre, meetings or any of a host of ways of finding out about the society around you, and even participating in it, exist.

Think only about television.

Hard to believe now, but when TV began it was an elite technology. Now technologies are called things like Bluetooth or i-something, but back then only a combination of Latin and Greek was good enough. Just to rub it in, as late as 1950 the biggest outside broadcast the BBC had ever put on was everyone’s favourite Oxbridge sporting showdown, the boat race.

Newspapers were allowed to be called newspapers, however much of the hard stuff they contained, and movie theatres somehow escaped the legislative obligation to run newsreels. But by the time television flickered into life, the price the public’s representatives extracted for entertaining their electors was informing them. Sadly, the more available and democratic the box became, the less democracy interested its viewers.

So where did the idea come from that the public deserved the news from television? The answer most frequently given is that democracy requires an informed citizenry. Yes democracy, one of those kaleidoscopic concepts that splits and shifts into endless colourful but familiar shapes. How you visualise democracy will shape your view of the public and its need for news. The type of democracy that political theorists would argue really requires an informed citizen is participatory democracy.

Look outside. Is there a chocolate-coated Alp in sight?

Can you hear yodelling masking the uncomfortable silences about wartime neutrality? No. This is not Switzerland, and you don’t live in a participatory democracy. We vote about as often as Philip Larkin had sex. As an adult male of 41, I have voted five times in general elections — and the ruling party has changed once.

The value of my vote has remained unaltered whether I bothered to watch the news, join a political party or analyse and compare each of the various (non-binding) manifestos.

And that’s nationally. Local politics generate even less democratic excitement, from county representation right down to the humble parish, in voter turnout and coverage.

Except the myth of public service broadcasting insists we live in a sort of democratic Disneyland. Here’s Caroline Thomson, the woman charged with getting the BBC’s charter renewed, saying that one of the three main purposes of the BBC (it’s too big for just one) is to support "UK Democracy, by empowering citizens with the information with which to make informed democratic choices through authoritative, impartial news".

So like one of those magazines they used to advertise with the Ronco fluff remover, night after night television news builds into a comprehensive home library that helps you make the right choice on general election day.

And once you’ve voted, there are only 1,827 news programmes to watch before the next one. Can that really be the reason we employ thousands of people, risk lives and spend millions of pounds? They don’t actually test you on the news before elections — as long as you’re not mad, royal or behind bars, you still get a vote.

Perhaps journalists themselves describe their role better.

Here’s Newsnight’s self appraisal: "Asking the tough questions and holding those in power to account." But isn’t that the task of Parliament and our elected representatives? And then every few years, the voters?

I could be building up to an argument that public service journalism removes people’s motivation for curiosity and lulls them into imagining that we live in a world of events capable of being understood impartially and ordered authoritatively. But I’m not.

My point is that the public is incapable of living up to the high expectations of public service journalism. Not because people are stupid or selfish — the "Deal or No Deal" argument — but because public service journalism is based on an idea, a noble idea, at odds with our political system, with the demands on our time, and with the way we have chosen to live our lives.

The information that television news provides for the electorate goes massively beyond the limited commitment our democracy requires. As if to make the point more obvious still, the very democratic system that requires those informed citizens to elect our lawmakers in Parliament, assemblies and town halls, is not considered a suitable method for choosing the regulators for Ofcom or the BBC.

The broadcasting regime whose only requirement, save not offending the taste of the public, is apparently to inform them, is governed by appointees.

Arguably, democracy has very limited applications in society outside government. Not for nothing was it Margaret Thatcher’s weapon of choice for disarming the trades union movement. It requires an investment of time and resource that many people are unwilling to make, beyond texting their support to the jungle.

I like television journalism. It’s hard for television to put words in people’s mouths; it struggles with issues such as fairness, comprehension and impartiality. I trust it. But I’m probably like you, and there just aren’t enough of us.

If it has a future, it has to be the public that decides. When news programmes are axed, shortened or shoved to the margins of the schedule, the painful silence is their message to us. The public who are caring for sick relatives, bringing up kids alone, out with their mates, or doing the things they do, need to ask themselves if they just want the television to glow warmly and grin inanely. Because it can do that. But that’s not all.

This article is an edited version of a City University lecture

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