Have you heard? History is not over after all
Docusoaps and cookery programmes won't tell us much about the likely economic upheavals of the next century. So let's keep News at Ten
Sunday 06 September 1998
The journalists, led by Trevor McDonald, are furious. The politicians, from Gerald Kaufman to the Prime Minister, with varying degrees of intensity, are annoyed. Eyre says he thinks he can boost the viewing figures from six million to 10 million. He wants to run what used to be called films, now known as movies, uninterrupted. Plus more documentaries and current affairs. All too probably, that means docusoaps and lifestyle programmes such as the cooking and decorating programmes that have made Peter Bazalgette a fortune; they also made him the featured McTaggart lecturer at last weekend's Edinburgh International Television Festival. No harm in Changing Rooms or Ready, Steady, Cook, but do we really want them to replace the news?
It all sounds fairly seriously muddled thinking. Do people want news earlier when the national trend is to eat later? Do they want more movies when they have VCRs and, anyway, Channel 5 is trying that, without dramatic success? Or rather, isn't this just corporate disingenuousness? Isn't Eyre really just surrendering to the new orthodoxy that people are bored with serious news?
In fact, the crises in Japan and Russia may mean we are moving into a "new era" in which people are once again engaged with what Section 31 of the Broadcasting Act calls "national and international news, seriously presented"; but the broadcasters don't know how to report it.
The image of the week was the moment when Boris Yeltsin, in his grotesque "summit" with Bill Clinton, lost it so comprehensively that even Clinton had to laugh. For a moment we had a glimpse of the old Clinton, the Clinton with the positive gender gap, the man who seemed to offer an optimistic face to revive the Democratic party and offer a new alternative to the politics of Reagan and Gingrich.
What Clinton had to offer the Russians, though, was just more of the same. The Russians must swallow more of the "free market reforms" that have brought them to the brink of famine and anarchy. Not that there is anything wrong with reform; just that reform used to mean changing things for the better, not changing things so that more is given to those who have more already. Still less is there anything wrong with "the market", so long as it is understood what that means.
The market is all too often portrayed as if the whole wealth-creating power of the capitalist system was personified by the fetish-screens of stockbrokers and bond traders. The economic system of free enterprise and the market economy reaches far wider than the dealing rooms. In the ruins of the command economy, Americans taught, and Russians believed, that the market economy meant the stock-market economy. They started 200 stock exchanges (most of which have gone broke) before they had a stable currency, before the government could collect its taxes, before they had repaired the infrastructure that would enable them to sell the boundless minerals of Siberia and the grain of the steppes to the world.
What has this got to do with television? Quite a lot. For television has not yet developed a language for reporting the economic issues that will preoccupy the audiences of the future. In the "short 20th century", from 1914 to 1989, the theme of news was war and its consequences: the vicious spiral of revolution, hyper-inflation, depression, communism, fascism, more war and Cold War.
Last weekend's Edinburgh television festival was dominated by the shallow men and women who think the era of news is over. Most of them are too busy salivating like Elisabeth Murdoch over what they imagine will be the gigaprofits of digitalisation to see that there will be a new grand narrative for the 21st century, a narrative of economics. In the 21st century the issues will be wealth and poverty, boom and bust. They will touch everybody's lives. If we don't understand them they could be transformed into another narrative of war.
One reason why interest in the news seems to be declining is because the professionals have not yet learnt how to report economic stories to engage the broad public's interest in they ways that the issues of war and peace did. So a reporter as good as ITN's Caroline Kerr, for example, was unable on Wednesday to get away from the cliche of the screens. It was left to the magnificent Matt Frei, in a documentary about the rape of Borneo by the Indonesian timber barons, to weave politics, economics, the environment and greed into a compelling report.
Last word to ITN's Mark Webster: "A country that rebuffed Napoleon and Hitler can surely deal with the global marketplace." Let us hope so. But can the same be said of ITN?
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