Uphill fight for rolling news

The trouble with rolling news is that sometimes it stops rolling and curls up with embarrassment. Indeed, during the first fortnight of the war against Iraq, the term ‘rolling news’ was often in grave danger of contravening the Trades Descriptions Act. That’s the thing about news. Just like some journalists, it seldom does what you want it to do.

On this page last week, Chris Shaw pointed out that TV’s obsession with immediacy has been thwarted by the pace of this war, a large part of which has consisted of long, drawn-out engagement with the enemy rather than the explosive action upon which TV, and especially live TV, thrives.

Radio caught a mild cold, too. Both TV and, for example, BBC’s Radio Five Live struggled when the Americans made their first incursion into Baghdad last weekend. Once it had been established that the Americans were not, as they had claimed, in the very centre of the city, reporters were reduced to repeating time and again that very little new appeared to be happening.

Occasionally, a US or British military or government spokesman, or various military experts – Christmas has come very early for a number of retired high ranking officers, most of whom must have been quietly dozing in their armchairs before hostilities broke out – would confirm that very little new was happening. How Five Live must wish at such times that it had The Archers.

Private Eye wickedly seized upon the bits of news that needed a tow-truck to get them rolling again: BBC News 24’s interminable pictures of B52s standing silently on the runway at RAF Fairford; BBC reporter Caroline Wyatt’s breathless “I was out with the troops today and can tell you that the desert here is really very sandy”.

The press coped much better. The best newspaper writers can, should it be required, provide long and entertaining pieces about a dripping tap. Give them a theatre of war where bullets frequently fly, missiles now and then strike and the only constant is confusion and they are likely to turn in potential prize-winning performances.

As Keith Waterhouse observed in last Monday’s Daily Mail: “I have to have my usual newspaper fix to tell me what’s really going on. Print journalism is preferable [to TV and radio] because the words are better.”

Waterhouse was right on both counts. The press has been more circumspect than radio or TV in questioning territorial claims from both sides and far less susceptible to the tightly controlled news management that has been an uncomfortable feature of the war so far. Pumping out masses of material, from soundbites to extravagant claims of military success, is no substitute for real information and newspaper journalists were quick to cotton on to this.

To be fair to radio and TV, they have been trying to catch up. News that chugs instead of rolls now is likely to be relegated to regular bulletins rather than given the sort of non-stop exposure that in a colder climate could lead to pneumonia. More searching questions are being asked. Unlike the US correspondents in the field – “blatant mouthpieces for the military,” according to Zoe Heller in The Daily Telegraph – the battalions of the British Media Corps are giving the news managers sleepless nights.

Hence Home Secretary David Blunkett’s carping in New York about reporters in the field giving “moral equivalence” to the Iraqis, another way of saying some correspondents will not accept being totally managed.

To insinuate that some reporters are unpatriotically dancing to the bum notes played by Iraq rather than the equally unmelodious melody piped by the coalition is shabby. One of the attractions of patriotism, wrote Aldous Huxley, is that “in the person of our nation we are able, vicariously, to bully and cheat. Bully and cheat, what’s more, with a feeling that we are profoundly virtuous.” The more those in charge spout complaints based on virtue, the more the media will know that they are getting something right.

Some years ago I worked with Mary Ann Sieghart at Today, not long after the launch of Eddy Shah’s brave but ultimately shredded dream. Today was, of course, a tabloid, even if its white-out-of-blue title piece suggested delusions of grandeur similar to those that dictate the Daily Mail describes itself as a “compact”.

The very talented Mary Ann was obviously going places and the place she went was The Times. The Times is, of course, too big to be a tabloid, although it is half-brother to that strident redtop The Sun – a relation one suspects the grand dame of British newspapers would prefer to see locked in the attic.

What the tabloid Sun thought of Mary Ann’s recent outpourings on the subject of “good journalism” I do not know, but it would be forgiven for suffering one of its frequent rushes of blood to the masthead. Mary Ann noted that results of a recent poll on the trust the public places in various professions had split journalists into different categories, depending on the media outlets for which they worked. Terrestrial TV news journalists were among the more highly regarded professionals; broadsheet journalists were not far behind and those working on mid-market papers such as the Daily Mail – “A tabloid? Moi?” – were considered less trustworthy. And the redtops? Need you ask?

All fairly predictable results from a sniffy newspaper-reading public that still buys the tabloids in vast numbers but will invariably deny this three times each morning before the cock crows. It was Mary Ann’s conclusions that might lead to a verbal mugging or two as she sets out on her way home from her intellectual powerhouse of an office past the cages in which The Sun staffers are kept.

Mary Ann and her colleagues are not, she ventured, “the type of hacks who deliberately twist stories or cause distress to innocent people. But the antics of the tabloids have sullied the reputation of the whole profession.”

It got worse: “At a time when hundreds of journalists are risking their lives in Iraq É it seems fitting to appreciate the good that good journalism can do,” she preached. “The best reporters manage to expose the misdeeds that those in power would rather keep hidden. But what is unmeasurable is the extent to which the very existence of good journalism deters people from acting badly for fear of being found out.”

Undoubtedly true. But Mary Ann should keep taking the tabloids, for that’s where some of the finest reporting and writing from the war zone has appeared. And as for the newspaper deterrent factor, which papers have over the years exposed more “misdeeds”, the redtops or the establishment-steeped broadsheets? And when the baddies cling to the straight-and-narrow through fear of exposure, what terrorises them most – a potential exposure in and a lambasting from The Times or the News of the World?

“Broadsheet newspapers are not perfect,” twittered Mary Ann. “Errors creep into every edition.”

Dead right. This piece was one of them.

Bill Hagerty is editor of British Journalism Review. He’ll be back in four weeks

lNext week: Janice Turner

By Bill Hagerty

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