In newsrooms around the world, every single day, battles are pitched over content. Lowest common denominator sub-editors rage against verbose scribes, and vice versa, as complexity and nuance give way to ease of comprehension and space or time constraints.
Assessments are made about the level of understanding of viewers and readers. Fat is trimmed. Simultaneously, the encroachment of sport and entertainment ‘news’ onto ‘actual’ news seems to increase every day.
Turn on Sky News in the UK, and often a significant proportion of time following the main bulletin will be devoted to sport. And not just sport – cage-fighting, table tennis and so-called e-Sports rarely get a look-in – but, specifically, football. Time that should be reserved for news, and the crucial role it plays in fostering an understanding of the world and reality itself among its viewers, is lost to the UK’s favourite sport. It is faux news (not to be confused with Fox News), functioning as advertising for the organisation’s premium sports channels.
But turn on the dedicated Sky Sports News channel, and you won’t see reports, in-depth or otherwise, from Afghanistan or Ukraine. Similarly, to watch BBC News today is to witness the world through a sport- and entertainment-centric prism, where government lines are taken as gospel, bullshit is not called out and very little makes sense.
There are those who will dispute this. “But football is news to some people,” one fan of the sport told me. “News is an update of the goings on, no? People are emotionally involved in football whether you like it or not – it provokes a reaction in others. Isn’t news meant to be for the people? Otherwise no-one would watch it.”
And this is the problem. As a society, I don’t think we’re properly educated on what the news is and can be and what its value is to us.
That same football fan acknowledged that he tended to find out about the football results from other sources, rendering the infiltration of ‘actual’ news pointless – to him at least, but I’m sure to many others as well. There is dedicated football programming on numerous channels, terrestrial and otherwise, such as ‘Match Of The Day’. Results can be gleaned from Twitter, BBC Sport online, or the FourFourTwo magazine. Just as with most hobbyist activities, there are countless avenues for the footballing fan to explore news and analysis of their sport to their heart’s content, just as there are for viewers of ‘Ultimate Fighting Championship’ or the latest competitive ‘Halo’ tournament. And yet we tolerate the erosion of ‘actual’ news time for a peek into the self-contained, meaningless goldfish bowl of the UK’s chosen sport. In the case of BBC South Today’s local news bulletin, sometimes more than half of the programme can be football-focussed, to the detriment of ‘actual’ news.
The freedom of the press and its dissemination of news is one of the hardest fought freedoms of the western world, and yet it is utterly taken for granted at best, and at worst is reviled and being actively attacked from all sides, including by news editors themselves.
“The standards I set have been rubbished in favour of pandering to what the people – the people, forsooth! – want”
– John Reith, the BBC’s first Director General, an admirer of Hitler who despised jazz
It’s not just viewer demand (perceived or otherwise) that is shaping an increasingly toothless media. Print and TV are suffering dwindling reader- and viewer-ships and increasingly fragmented audiences.
Every day, trade magazines reflect on the state of newspapers and magazines, and endlessly rehash ‘print is dead’ features, or advice on how to bring content to ubiquitous mobile devices.
The ongoing transition still isn’t fully understood by most people, even those who have given their whole lives to the newspaper industry. Today it was announced that The Independent and Independent on Sunday newspapers, which started in 1986, will cease to be printed in March – and exist only online.
“I think it will be the first of many papers which stop their print editions and have another existence online.”
– Stephen Glover, Independent co-founder
What are newspapers? They are tools for disseminating information. The printing press revolutionised the world when it took isolated ideas and isolated communities and enabled the spread of knowledge. Human voices were no longer bound by their maximum volume – shouted across the street or in the pub – or by the tired hands of writers. They could be commited to paper and mass produced and sent further afield.
“Sooner rather than later they will all go. No one can say in what order it will happen, but it will happen to the most venerable titles, even to the top-selling Sun and Mail.”
– Brian Cathcart, professor of journalism at Kingston University London
It seems to me that in the Post-9/11 Clusterfuck, post-Hutton, post-Snowden media landscape that the majority of the so-called mainstream media has singularly failed to provide an accurate summary of world events, and that news consumers’ understanding is suffering as a result. There are days when it is possible to turn on the television and not even realise there’s a war on, let alone several, and that US President Barack Obama bombed seven countries in his first six years in office – Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, Libya and Syria – despite running on a platform of opposition to the Iraq war before 2009.
The BBC has had it particularly bad, in terms of a news organisation being attacked. Perhaps one of the strongest blows came in 2003, following the Corporation’s chastening by the then-Labour government after former Radio 4 ‘Today’ show reporter Andrew Gilligan daringly stated that the government’s case for war in Iraq had been”sexed up” (and he and the then-Director General, Greg Dyke, were subsequently forced to resign).
Mr Gilligan’s source, Dr David Kelly, was found dead, having apparently overdosed on a cocktail of drugs and having slit one of his wrists. According to Mr Gilligan, Dr Kelly had stated he had concerns about the 45-minute claim, which related to the speed with which Saddam Hussein could deploy weapons of mass destruction, and attributed its inclusion into the ‘dodgy dossier’ to then-Prime Minister Tony Blair’s director of communications and strategy, Alastair Campbell.
“This report casts a chill over all journalism, not just the BBC’s. It seeks to hold reporters, with all the difficulties they face, to a standard that it does not appear to demand of, for instance, government dossiers.”
– Andrew Gilligan, after the publication of the Hutton Report, which sought to investigate the cause of Dr Kelly’s death, but which had an apparently far wider remit and was branded a ‘whitewash’ in many sections of the media – for finding so heavily in favour of the government
And things haven’t improved since then. The BBC is facing the very real prospect of losing its licence fee. Much has been made of the statistic that current Tory chancellor, George Osborne, has presided over the biggest privatisation of UK public assets of any chancellor in history.
In the same week that 40,000 junior doctors have gone on strike to protest proposed changes to their contracts, it has also been revealed that Conservative health secretary Jeremy Hunt MP, who is in charge of the health service, co-wrote a book on privatising the NHS. Regarded by many as one of the UK’s greatest public institutions, which was created after the Second World War, many fear its days are numbered, and that any moves to make changes to the service are part of a malign objective to undermine the NHS until it is sold off.
Secretary of state for culture, media and sport, John Whittingdale MP, who in time might come to be regarded as a fellow pro-privatisation footsoldier alongside Mr Hunt, despite, as far as I know, not having co-authored a book on privatising the BBC, said last year: “In the short term, there appears to be no realistic alternative to the licence fee, but that model is becoming harder and harder to justify and sustain.”
The statement was made in light of changing technology and audience habits, which it seems are existential threats to the future of both state-funded media institutions and commercial newspapers alike.
In one such newsroom, I lost count of the number of times I heard the stunning phrase, “Our readers wouldn’t understand that.”
“[The audience] is best visualized as a vicious, lazy, profoundly ignorant, perpetually hungry organism craving the warm god-flesh of the anointed. Personally I like to imagine something the size of a baby hippo, the color of a week-old boiled potato, that lives by itself, in the dark, in a double-wide on the outskirts of Topeka. It’s covered with eyes and it sweats constantly. The sweat runs into those eyes and makes them sting. It has no mouth, Laney, no genitals, and can only express its mute extremes of murderous rage and infantile desire by changing the channels on a universal remote. Or by voting in presidential elections.”
– William Gibson – Idoru
‘Our readers’ – a homogenous entity, who simply wouldn’t understand, and whose understanding is lesser than any given journalist’s.
Journalists love to simplify things for the lowest common denominator, and put things in terms the average dimwit can understand. As a result, measurements in a story are given in size relative to football pitches. For example, the new circular Apple campus in Cupertino, we are told, can fit three football pitches inside its central courtyard. As noted previously, IBM Hursley’s army guy said GCHQ had servers spanning five football pitches. Likewise, new buildings are measured in relation to double decker buses or well-known landmarks. The Burj Khalifa is more than two-and-a-half Eiffel Towers in height.
But what they don’t tell you – certainly not during the lengthy interludes when we are forced to observe overpaid men kicking balls into nets, and then, after the match, offering their glistening insights into why they didn’t kick the ball into their opponents’ goal enough times, or how happy they were to have kicked the ball into the opponents’ goal more times, thus securing a win – is how many swimming pools’ worth of blood has been spilled during the War On Terror.
If we take the estimate (that many would say is conservative) that two million people have died in the myriad War On Terror conflicts, and multiply that number by the amount of blood in the ‘average’ human (5.5 litres in a 70kg person), and divide that by the number of litres’ capacity of an Olympic swimming pool (2,500,000 litres), then we arrive at the following figure:
Four-and-a-half Olympic swimming pools filled with blood.
I don’t think our readers will understand that.