TV: too hot for its own good

Do the media set a perverse agenda – or do they faithfully record events with a serious sense of priorities?

A BBC Radio 5 show (Sunday, 24 November 2008) asked me to go on and discuss this question. Here’s my attempt to think things through.

The answer is that some news media are too excitable and others are too exciting.

Taking a trivial case first: I can’t see that it matters that John Sergeant made such a big splash. It made a welcome change from the Congo and the Crunch. Crucially: Strictly and those other stories are not remotely mutually exclusive.

Secondly, I hardly ever worry about the print coverage of anything. There are papers which are silly quite a lot of the time and no paper which isn’t silly sometimes. Who cares? Taken as a whole, print coverage is wonderful. On the whole, the victims of the press’s worse excesses make a decent return for their trouble.

I do worry about TV. It is famously a “hot” medium: it is briliant at passion and not so good at analysis. I know a 93 year old who finds the BBC 6 O’Clock News very upsetting. I tell him to turn it off and gets his news from his Daily Telegraph instead. Or, I suggest, he could switch back on for the 7 o’clock Channel 4 News. It’s much clamer and more cool than “The Six”.

Never mind that the C4 News is wringing wet and drenched in attitude, it’s a proper news show. I doubt it would suit my old boy: it isn’t driven sufficiently by the headlines. He could of course listen to the news on nice middle-class and steady Radio 4. But like many old people, he can’t be bothered with radio. Weird, but there you are.

Whilst we’re at it, here’s a conundrum. Why is Sky TV rolling news calmer and cooler than BBC News 24? I know it’s visually louder. But it often seems somehow more grown-up. I think that may be because it treats its audience as adults rather than people in need of remedial education.

The point is that television can be very hot or quite cool, and I much prefer channels which treat me as a grown-up.

The BBC has one very deep fear, and that is that it will lose the mass market. That means that it must play to the vulgar strengths of the media in which it deals.

The result is a bit schizophrenic. The 6 O’Clock works both sides of street as best it can. It does the doomy drama of a “Stabbings Season” and parades of weepy victims saying they’re devastated. And then it puts on ana analyst such as Mark Easton to spray some comparative data about, like a fireman at a five alarm fire. (I should perhaps add that the BBC is very seldom any good about climate change: I think that’s because it feels a terrific need to get us to want to save the world, like it knew how to do that.)

There is one slightly peculiar conclusion to all this. It isn’t the agenda which changes as we channel-hop or go from airwaves to print. It’s the style.

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Publication date

22 November 2008