No news is good news

News saturation, manipulation and misrepresentation comes under scrutiny in Channel 4's latest season. Steven Poole reports
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
And now, the news. Bong ! "Koala gets its feet burnt..." Bong! "Chinese children comb old ladies' hair..." Bong! "Headmaster suspended for using big-faced child as satellite dish..."

That last story, actually, comes from BBC2's wickedly funny news satire, The Day Today - but the first two are genuine television news items. They are taken from Daily Planet (Sun 8pm C4), a collage of one day's news - that of 2 February 1995 - from broadcasts all over the world. A "televisual Tower of Babel", it's the opening film in a Channel 4 season entitled "Whose News?" which, as well as pointing up the weird frivolity of some stories, examines the politics and self-interest that go into the making of supposedly impartial news programmes.

Channel 4's Peter Salmon, Controller of Factual Programmes, explains: "News is too important just to leave to newspeople. We get more than 70 per cent of our information from news broadcasts, and as a business it's worth around $3 to $5 billion a year worldwide. We want to see how news affects real people." In Manufacturing Consent (Mon 12.35am and Thur 12.45am), for instance, Noam Chomsky argues that in 1975, the Khmer Rouge atrocities in Cambodia were widely reported because of the West's hostility to that party, whereas the genocide in East Timor went almost unnoticed thanks to our political indifference. Dispatches (Wed 9pm), too, excoriates British news programmes for their "Westminster filter" approach - it's not news unless you can get an MP to say something about it.

We also get Deadline (Mon 9pm), a documentary-soap that shadows the crew of Calendar, the Yorkshire Television local news programme fronted by the unflappable Richard Whiteley (above). We learn that producers really do say "We like hard news at the top" - a phrase which lends itself to mischievous Freudian interpretations. But the most telling moment is when Whiteley admits, frowning: "All this news - all it does is worry people, really."

And do we have good cause to worry? Do we need so much news? Satellite, with its promise of hundreds of actualit strands, may seem exciting, but, as hinted by Satellite Wars (Sun 26 Mar 9pm), it's likely we'll just get hundreds of channels of self-serving rubbish run by crazed international moguls. Consider that vile neologism, "infotainment", with its ingenuous promise to make information "entertaining". The reality is more like "entertation" - making entertainment out of whatever "information" is available or can be invented. There's a rum story by Will Self called "Grey Area", in which nothing happens anywhere for six weeks, yet Peter Snow discusses the lack of news with "experts" on Newsnight every evening. TV news is about style; substance is an optional extra.

Channel 4's season is therefore timely. But if all television reporting is so subjective, is television the right medium to mount an investigation into those failings? Surely the "Whose News?" programmes cannot but be as biased as those they seek to expose. "Of course we've had to be selective but that's why we've kept the spread wide," Salmon agrees. "That way people can make up their own minds. We're saying `Come to the banquet this Sunday - see what dishes are laid out'."

In the final analysis, a better understanding of how the medium works, and who the people are who control our window on the world, can only be for the good. If you ever assumed that news programming was just a reliable public service, bring your mental cutlery to bear on "Whose News?". You may feel a bit like Zack de la Rocha, from US band Rage Against The Machine: "If ignorance is bliss, they've knocked the smile off my face."