Brendan O'Neill finds the restyled television news broadcasts a turn-off
Is new news bad news?
'Until we came along TV news audiences were getting pretty old and were dying off. I think we have created something which is appealing and more interesting to a younger adult audience, something which has captured young people's attention.'
Chris Shaw, editor of 5News, has good reason to be confident. As Channel 5 passes its first birthday, his innovative news programme is its biggest success story. Launched without a mission statement, but with the aim of being a 'modern upstart', 5News is now watched by more 16 to 30-year olds than any other terrestrial news programme. 'Of course our aim was to be taken seriously', says Shaw, 'but we also wanted to be younger, clever, alternative and different'.
Anybody who watches 5News will know that it is different. Instead of an anchorman behind a desk, 5News has a 'walking/talking style', where handsome young presenters Kirsty Young and Rob Butler break the news as they stroll around the technicolour studio or perch on the edge of a desk. The programme's researchers can be seen and heard in the background, giving 5News a sense of dynamism and urgency. According to Shaw this new approach points the way to a 'less patronising, more inclusive' news format:
'There is a sense that the more traditional news programmes are very authoritarian, where you usually have a middle-aged man in a grey suit telling the world what is going on. But many people want news which feels relevant to them. They don't want us to rely on the language of authority, but on language that feels more "on side" and more in tune with their interests. What we are arguing is that credibility can be achieved through empathy as much as it can through authority.'
Shaw is right that there were many problems with the old-style news format, not least the sense of moral superiority that infused much of its output. But is the solution to make the news more 'relevant' and 'accessible', if that means pitching it at the imagined level of an unworldly GCSE student? Yesterday's news editors may have been high-handed, but they also had a sense that their audience were adults, capable of coming to terms with potentially difficult issues. Is Shaw implying that we, the viewers, now need to have the news made easy enough for us to understand?
'I don't think so', responds Shaw. 'The way I see it is that it's like the changes that have taken place in the world of medicine. Thirty years ago a woman with an illness would probably feel that she was not being properly treated unless the doctor was saying, "Don't you mind dear, I'll just scribble out a prescription because I know what's best". But these days if you go to the doctor you want him to be sympathetic to your problems and to talk to you in an understanding way. That is how I see the changes in television news.' That all sounds well and good, but personally I am still most concerned that my newly sympathetic doctor should know what he is doing and be able to give me an authoritative and accurate diagnosis of the problem. And the same goes for the news.
5News may be an imaginative attempt to devise new forms of reporting for our changed times, and the aim of bringing news to a younger audience is certainly laudable, but there are serious problems with this approach. With its emphasis on empathy over authority, the 'new news' risks undermining journalistic standards and the idea of objective reporting, by coming down to what it perceives to be 'our level' and diluting information to make it more accessible. And it is not only the 'upstarts' at Channel 5 who want TV news to change in this way.
'The style and presentation of 5News has to some extent rubbed off on the industry as a whole', says Peter Barron, deputy editor of Channel 4 News. 'At Channel 4 and in the news industry more broadly, I think people are realising that news has got to be accessible to the people it is trying to attract.' In a bid to rejuvenate Channel 4 News, ITN installed a new editor, Jim Gray, last December, promising to make the programme 'less conservative, more radical'. 'And in the few months since', says Peter Barron, 'the conservatism has gone or is going very quickly. We are committed to a much more original and lively style and we will continue down that path as we relaunch the programme in 1999. Accessibility and understanding is what it is all about'.
Even BBC News has had a change of heart. BBC2's Newsnight has jazzed up its Friday night slot into a chat show-style discussion of the week's issues, complete with tongue-in-cheek swingometers, funny films and a new emphasis on cultural and youth issues. And when the BBC launched its 24-hour news channel last November, Channel 5's fingerprints were all over it. There was the relaxed young presenter in a colourful studio, with researchers and writers in full view in the background. In fact, the BBC had to tone down the new look when older viewers complained that they found the studio nauseating and that they could hear the journalists muttering.
For much of the 1990s, news bosses have been dreaming up ways to make the news more watchable and viewer-friendly. The end result is a news format which increasingly seems to assume that viewers either cannot or will not understand important world developments or handle anything too stressful. 5News, News at Ten, Newsnight or BBC News 24 were not the first programmes to present the news in this way. Long before the discussion about the 'new news' began there was a programme dedicated to presenting the news in an informal, relaxed and unchallenging manner, and it is still running: it's called Newsround.
In Roddy Doyle's Paddy Clarke (Ha Ha Ha) the child protagonist is confused as he watches the news, believing guerrillas to be gorillas and wondering why apes would want to fight a war. This is why Newsround exists, to explain to children who do not know any better what is going on in the world. Newsround is filmed in a colourful studio, with young presenters who walk around and sit on the edge of their desks to make their viewers feel more at ease, and who present the news in clear and simple language so as to not look down on their audience and make them feel stupid. Maybe 5News was not such an original concept after all.
But this avuncular approach is understandable on a programme like Newsround, which is designed to make sense of a confusing world for unworldly children. (Although it has to be said that Newsround has gone downhill lately. Under John Craven 10 or 15 years ago the programme did its best to report important events objectively. A recent episode I watched, however, had moralising items on anorexia, the threat to the environment and the dangers of scratchcard addiction. New Britain, New Newsround.) But to take a similar patronising approach on a news programme for adults risks insulting the audience's intelligence.
Much of television news seems to be in danger of being dumbed down to a kind of lowest common denominator. This is reflected in the trend for children's TV presenters to move on to front more serious news and discussion programmes without altering their patronising and childlike tone. So Juliet Morris has moved from Newsround to the Breakfast News and now to the live discussion programme Here and Now, without changing the tone of her reporting. Channel 5's Kirsty Young came to 5News from the BBC's Style Challenge, and sometimes it shows: in an interview with Don King, Young sped through the boxing promoter's newsworthy legal battles, and spent the rest of the time asking how he gets his hair to stand on end.
Many point to this new relaxed style of presenting the news as a welcome break from the cold, aloof delivery of the past. But as somebody who is interested in what is going on in the world the last thing I want when I turn on the news is to be spoken to like a child. I would much rather news reporters assumed that I am as capable of understanding events as they are and presented their stories in a detailed, rigorous and challenging way.
Taken together, the new relaxed style of presentation, the elevation of empathy over authority and the focus on 'ordinary' news stories make up what has been referred to as 'the People's News'. This new news is not only concerned with communicating the facts of important events: it also aspires to present the 'right' moral message, the truth of the day.
'I vigorously refute the notion that we are all style and no content', says Chris Shaw. '5News is not a format, it's an approach; more than that, it's an attitude.' There was a time when TV news saw its primary role as the provision of stories and information; now it seems that news editors are more interested in having the 'right attitude'.
'A term which is quite in vogue at the moment is "reporter involvement"', says Shaw. 'But that is slightly different from reporters getting involved in the story in the Martin Bell sense', he adds, careful to avoid the accusation that he is practising the journalism of attachment: 'I'm not talking about the Martin Bell thing of being outraged by Serbian atrocities and showing that outrage. "Reporter involvement" is more about doing your journalism on site with ordinary people, talking to people and to witnesses.'
Shaw recognises the death of Princess Diana as a turning point in the discussion about 'reporter involvement' or 'people-led news': 'Diana's death was extremely significant. You can see its effect right across the board, it's kind of where those "real TV dramas" and "docu-soaps" are coming from. People are fed up listening to pundits and representatives and all the rest of it; they want us to get down there and hear what ordinary people have to say. They want us to approach stories from the point of view of how they impinge on you and me. So a people-led news is certainly becoming more popular.'
Channel 4's Peter Barron agrees: 'I think the Diana tragedy in particular did have an effect on the style of news, with much more emphasis on looking at the popular mood, gauging the mood of things. I think it fitted in with the whole New Britain thing, with people looking at mood rather than hard facts.'
Days after Diana's death Tony Hall, chief executive of BBC News, spelled out 'the People's News' approach of elevating mood and emotion over facts and figures, in an article entitled 'The people led, we followed':
'Journalists like facts. Who, what, when and where; that's the mantra for every fresh-faced recruit to our profession. Our job is to gather those facts, form them into a coherent report and get them on air. Audiences are supposed to be listening to us, not the other way round. But last week we learnt a tough lesson. We learnt that emotion has its political dimension, that by giving voice on our airwaves to "ordinary" individuals' thoughts and feelings, we could get at some kind of truth, which would otherwise elude us, no matter how many facts we assembled.' (Times, 10 September 1997)
When a senior BBC man talks about a 'truth' that is somehow separate from the facts, it is surely time to worry about where the news is heading.
The post-Diana 'new news' presents itself as more viewer-friendly and people-oriented, but it can also be highly coercive and censorious. When emotion is put before analysis, and broadcasting the 'right' moral message takes precedence over investigating all sides of the story, woe betide anybody who deviates from the correct line.
On Sunday 31 August last year, as the nation was waking to find out that Princess Diana was dead, professor David Starkey was invited on to ITN news. As a well-known conservative constitutional historian, Starkey was asked to appraise Diana's life. He repeated many of the criticisms he had made of her while she was alive: that she had been manipulative, a liability for the royal family, that the Panorama interview had been an effective character assassination of Prince Charles and so on.
What happened next was remarkable. Newsreader Dermot Murnaghan cut Starkey short and hustled him off air. Then, when the cameras crossed to outside one of the palaces, royal correspondent Nick Owen made an unprompted attack on Starkey and challenged him to 'come down here' and see what the people made of his blasphemous criticisms of Diana. 'I thought it was utterly unprofessional', Starkey told me. 'ITN's coverage was scandalously biased. As we have this convention of impartiality in our newscasters, the notion that immediately we all have to agree that this woman was totally perfect struck me as being seriously shocking. What we got was Diana propaganda and there was no intelligent coverage whatever. It was totally unbalanced.'
Not only does the new news tend to look down on us as people who need to have information spoon-fed in an easily digested form, it is also intolerant of anybody who strays from the narrow confines of the discussion, of anything which jars with the 'truth of the day' about Diana, Louise Woodward or whatever the next moral spectacle might be. If it carries on like this, in the end we might just as well go back to watching Newsround.
Kirsty Young (left), the face of 5News, and Chris Shaw, its editor
Reproduced from LM issue 112, July/August 1998