Earlier this year, Jeremy Paxman suggested some editions of Newsnight should simply inform the viewing audience there was nothing much to talk about, before rolling the closing credits. Knowing Paxo, he was probably just being provocative, or even presaging his recent departure from the late night current affairs stalwart. He may even have been nostalgically recalling the time when a very young BBC informed listeners just that; there was no news that day and everyone could retire to bed early. Whichever, he was certainly hinting at something of an existential crisis in the modern news media.
Alain De Botton (a man so imbued with philosophical brain power, it has forced the very hair from his follicles) has also joined the fray, with a typically cerebral take on things. He proposes ‘The News’ should be retitled ‘Some News’. His argument being that for every missing airliner, there are thousands more which reach their destination unscathed, but also unreported. He feels this gives us a skewed view of our world. Presumably, he imagines we are entirely ignorant of those successful flights and therefore, based on news reports, see air travel as fantastically perilous. Unfortunately, it’s very tricky to imagine anyone rushing home to catch an hour-long bulletin on all the unexceptional things that have happened that day
'A few years ago, some important media bods hit on the idea of hyper-local news.'
So are Jeremy and Alain right? Is ‘The News’ in crisis? Well, it is certainly in flux. But before we go much further, perhaps we should determine exactly what ‘news’ is. Because I would say De Botton is being obtuse. His concept of the everyday occurrence having the same currency as the unexpected or highly consequential event, is more than a little harebrained. The actual content of any news bulletin will always be a subjective, editorial decision – however, we can probably all agree that news stories must at least be exceptional, interesting or significant. ‘Planes Arrive Safely’ is clearly welcome information, but as it isn’t exceptional, interesting or significant, it isn’t news.
A few years ago, some ‘important’ media bods hit on the idea of ‘hyper-local’ news. This was a plan to introduce radio programmes, newspapers and websites catering to very small territories – no more than a few streets. For a while, there was much excitement, as it was thought a whole new market for news had been uncovered. Alas, any moves to actually build such networks soon foundered. Why? Because exceptional, interesting and significant stuff doesn’t occur in sufficient volumes in that tight a space. Plenty happens, but very little of it is ‘news’. As Danny Baker so pithily puts it ‘Boy, that was dull. But it was very local.’ We’re probably seeing the death knell of this misguided proposition in the slow, painful humiliation of ‘London Live’ – a hyper-local TV channel, currently on air and occasionally, with literally nobody watching.
‘Citizen journalism’ has made more positive progress. Although the title isn’t really adequate, as most of those involved are not really journalists and, conversely, professional journalists have always been citizens. What is actually taking place under this flag is media activism. Very few news organisations ever dared imagine such sophisticated reporting tools would become available to them, let alone the general populace. Nevertheless, in scores of nations, bus drivers and butchers, chefs and chauffeurs have in their pockets recording devices which can capture, video, audio and still photography, then rapidly place that data on a global media platform. That’s not really journalism as it’s unmediated. But in a situation like the Arab Spring, it is very powerful news.
'This was news at its most profound.'
When Japan was struck by the terrible Kamaishi earthquake in 2012, I was communicating via Twitter, with someone I don’t know but whom I follow. He lives in Tokyo and was describing the shocks and aftershocks as the quake tore across the city. He was doing this in real-time and from the midst of the unfolding disaster. I was reading his live updates on a chilly and quiet railway platform in North Yorkshire.
This was news at its most profound. Gripping, massively topical, incredibly authentic, exceptionally significant and utterly fascinating. Thankfully my Twitter friend was unharmed, as his tweets had pulled me closer to a breaking story than any bulletin I had seen in the preceding 45 years. And all without the need for a script, producer, studio or suit.
It’s this kind of immediate reportage that has put the big news organisations on the back foot. What they offer in competition (other than men in suits) is ‘analysis’. Analysis is important. Without the background delivered by geologists, emergency workers, and others appearing on the official broadcast bulletins, all I would have were those panicky Tokyo tweets. Yes, analysis is important, but it’s not news. I already had the news, more rapidly and pointedly than any professional broadcaster could manage.
I’m always rather surprised when one of those regular furores arises, accusing a paper or broadcaster of bias in their reporting, as though it had ever been any other way. Indeed, most news outlets are fanatically proud of their allegiances and angles. The right-wing agenda at Fox News, although often comically extreme, is actually the station’s USP and a magnet for a massive viewership. Although The Guardian once splashed with the strapline ‘Free Thinkers Welcome’ it is quite openly a left-leaning liberal newspaper; less crass than Fox News, maybe, but still affiliated to a particular political standpoint. This is what I mean by journalism being ‘mediated’. It is the reporting of events through a particular prism. I don’t mean that pejoratively, I just think it’s inevitable when human beings attempt to relate factual stories.
The exception, of course, would be the BBC. Or at least it ought to be. Because the Beeb is paid for by the general public through a compulsory tax, its charter insists its output is completely free from bias. That’s a noble principle, but one I fear, it is impossible to achieve in practice. That’s not to say the BBC’s news content cannot be trusted. On the contrary, it’s arguably the most robust coverage of the world, in the world. However, where its ideal would be a static pendulum, frozen at the untarnished midpoint, in truth the BBC tends to move evenly to and fro to produce relative objectivity. I say ‘relative’, as it’s hard to give the national broadcaster an entirely clean bill of health when it carries stories from Strictly Come Dancing in its flagship news programmes.
It may make us uncomfortable, but ‘news’ is actually a commodity sold in a competitive marketplace where the viewer/listener/reader is the consumer. One may choose to consume only those outlets which offer their wares for free at the point of delivery: ITV, C4, BBC, Metro. Or one may choose to pay for one’s news: The Daily Mail, Sky, The FT, The Times Online, The Sun – and so on. What’s more, we can select which flavouring we want sprinkled on our news and whether we want to read it, hear it or watch it. Every operator in this market offers a slightly different product, but they would all label it ‘news’. This is a reasonably healthy state of affairs when one considers the confection and mendacity that passes for news in Burma or North Korea. But what is worrying the news vendors, is the possibility the consuming crowd will dwindle to a point where the market is undermined, its members finally more convinced, excited and satisfied by the information they build between them – on Twitter, on YouTube and a million other forums.
We haven’t yet reached that point, but the market is very saturated with suppliers, all hungrily searching for a sustainable and profitable model. Right now it’s hard to see what that model will be, and how it will shape this surprisingly ancient and staggeringly contemporary thing we call ‘news’.
Although I think we can safely say it won’t involve an announcer or banner headline declaring ‘Here is some news. There isn’t much to tell you today.’
Magnus Shaw is a blogger, copywriter and consultant.