Saturday, 31 August 2013

Media Wars

When I was a kid, the media was very limited. In fact, my first memories are not even of TV, but still of listening to Two Way Family Favourites, on a Sunday morning, on the radio, followed by 'The Clitheroe Kid', 'Round The Horne” and 'The Goon Show'. It was nearly 1960 before we got a TV, and then the only channels were BBC1, and ITV. Because we lived in a village on a hill, we got some variety because the old style TV aerial picked up ATV as well as Granada, and BBC Midlands as well as BBC North, and on a good day, BBC Wales and Harlech.

It wasn't until the mid 1960's that BBC2 was introduced, and with it the novelty that programmes didn't finish at half past ten at night, but with the 'midnight movie' ran on for another hour or so! And TV didn't start until almost tea-time anyway. Because I lived in a small village I never had more than a 2 minute walk to school, so I always came home at dinner time. The only concession was that during this time you could watch 'Bill and Ben' on 'Watch With Mother', and later 'Lunch Box' with Noel Gordon. It wasn't until well into the 1970's that you started to get even lunch time news programmes.

News presentation itself was still pretty staid with a news reader smartly dressed speaking in BBC English. Again it was only later into the 1960's, and 70's that presenters like Reggie Bosanquet, Andrew Gardner, and Kenneth Baker and Angela Rippon began to loosen it up a bit. Sport was similar.

Sport was something mostly that happened on a Saturday. Harry Carpenter would present boxing midweek, and later on, especially after the World Cup, and Celtic and Manchester United winning the European Cup, big football matches would be shown. But, mostly sport was reserved for Saturday with Dickie Davies presenting World of Sport on ITV, and David Coleman or my uncle Frank presenting Grandstand on BBC. (Frank Bough isn't actually my uncle, he's my dad's cousin or second cousin).

Even for a big event like the FA Cup final, the build up would be perhaps for just an hour or so before the kick-off with the commentary being provided by a single commentator like Kenneth Wolstenholme.

Compare all that with today. We have 24 hour TV, and hundreds of channels though most of them are selling stuff including soft porn. In fact, all of them are selling stuff, including the BBC, and including its news channels, because even the BBC is stuffed full of adverts for its own programmes. News today includes news of who is going to be on the BBC's latest reality show, or opportunity for its celebrities to appear on some other programme out of their usual guise, a novelty that began with Angela Rippon's appearance on Morecambe and Wise's Christmas Special, and which we've all had to suffer from since.

And in the same vein the news itself is now little more, therefore, than entertainment. There is a big difference between being a meteorologist, who has to have studied for several years at University, to actually understand what drives the weather, and who spends their time with scientific data to analyse what it might do, and a weather presenter, who only needs to look good in front of a camera, and be competent enough to read an autocue, which tells them what to say about what the weather is possibly going to do.

Long gone are the days when the news changed so little during the day that a single news reader could present a news bulletin at tea-time, and again at 9 or 10 p.m. Today, news as entertainment requires at least two news readers to be keeping each other company at any one time, so that they can take it in turns to read the same news over and over again, during their shift, again from an autocue, and yet you suspect that the £93,000 a year, one of them a while ago let slip, they get paid for reading the same stuff every 15 minutes, is considerably more, in relative terms, than Reggie Bosanquet got paid, for managing to do it on his own, all those years ago.

And, just as nowadays, the run up to the FA Cup starts several days before it happens, and the actual programme begins in the morning and drones on continually until hours after the match has taken place, so the news follows the same approach. No matter how interesting the discussion with some studio guest might actually be, if some event might be occurring that day, the interview has to be suspended so that we can rush live over to see – what? - a cameraman, doing a white balance, or a set of vacant microphones waiting for someone to provide them with a justification for their existence. Its like a channel of film of paint drying. But, then lots of people did watch Big Brother.

It seems like a confirmation of the dialectical concept of quantity turning into quality, except here it is a massive increase in the quantity of TV that has turned its quality into dross. Yet, all of these channels seem to have to compete over who can provide the largest quantity of dross, in part it seems to justify all of the people who are employed on huge salaries to present it. Its typified by the ubiquitous tickers that scroll across the bottom of the screen, repeating the same one or two sentences endlessly, and by the use of video tape loops of the same 20 seconds of footage that play over the voice of the news presenter repeating the same empty drivel over and over again whenever some event has occurred, but which is inescapable because the news itself has become a never ending repetition.

In fact, precisely because the real content of the news has been emptied out, because all we are given is the most superficial presentation of events, simply dragged out for an eternity, rather than any meaningful examination of the facts, its no wonder that it is presentation that has replaced content, and so the presenters themselves have to become high paid celebrities and entertainers. But, for the same reason the news itself takes on a different role.

There was the old joke that wars would stop if only Kate Adie retired, because it seemed that wherever there was a war, Kate Adie was there also. Unfortunately, not true, but over the last week, it has struck me just how much the drum beat of war over Syria seemed to be being beaten by the news channels. And of course, that is not surprising. With news as entertainment, wars are no different than the FA Cup, they are an opportunity for the TV companies to justify all of the money they spend on those presenters, and their fancy bits of kit, and studios. The disappointment of the TV news presenters was palpable after Parliament voted against another war in the Middle East.

No doubt, just like an FA Cup Final another such war would have given plenty of opportunity for 24 hour news channels to have gone overboard with their pre-match analysis, action replays of bombs destroying buildings, and undoubtedly people inside them; there would have been all the clever graphics of team tactics and so on. The news celebrities would have had a field day.

Its very reminiscent of the decay of the Roman Empire. They too made death and destruction a spectacle for entertainment. They called it bread and circuses. A means of keeping the population happy rather than revolting in the streets at their deteriorating conditions.

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