'Media's short attention span is failing viewers'

Clare Short, Secretary of State for International Development, blamed "short-attention-span syndrome" for a failure by broadcasters to give people the information they need to challenge government policies overseas.

"If there’s a famine or a crisis, TV crews turn up, show some pictures and then go away. There’s no analysis or context," said Short who took part in an interview shown at Newsworld during a discussion on the future for foreign news after 11 September.

The Labour Cabinet minister, whose party has been criticised for control-freakery, said that the news media was not fulfilling its democratic role of questioning and challenging government policy.

"The news media isn’t giving people the information they want. There’s a malfunction," said Short, who added that the media had exaggerated the role of British troops in the current crisis and misled people by using terms such as "war" when it was not.

David Lloyd, Channel 4’s head of news and current affairs, dismissed her claims as "a succession of half-truths and untruths".

He also said it was too early to say if the renewed interest in news and current affairs after the events of 11 September and the bombing of Afghanistan would continue in the long term.

"At the moment there is an insatiable appetite for news and current affairs, with audiences about 30 to 40 per cent higher," said Lloyd.

"If people continue to feel threatened by events of 11 September, if they want to feel wired up to this new world, then it will continue."

Mark Byford, the head of the new global news department for the World Service and BBC World, dismissed arguments that demand for international news was "a flash in the pan," insisting that it was "a very strong reminder of why you need consistent investment in foreign news around the world".

But Steve Anderson, head of news and current affairs at ITV, said the jury was "still out" over the extent to which people were now interested in foreign coverage.

"I don’t detect a clamour among the audiences that what’s going on in Sri Lanka or the latest in Macedonia should dominate the television screens," said Anderson, adding that the debate about boosting foreign news coverage was against the backdrop of "the biggest advertising slump".

"In a commercial world, you have to look at commercial realities," he said.

Richard Sambrook, BBC director of news, said afterwards that he hoped that demand for coverage of international stories would continue, but acknowledged that if it did, it would be "very much in the face of a reverse trend up until 11 September".

Julie Tomlin

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