Second site The web of influence

A COUPLE of weeks into the Nato bombing campaign, President Clinton made a speech at an American airbase, affirming that the cause was just and that the allies would prevail. Standard procedure for television news channels such as Sky News, BBC News 24 and CNN is to broadcast such speeches live, so viewers are often presented with the same programme on several channels. On this occasion, however, CNN did something different from its competitors. At intervals, it switched from a full-screen image of the President to a screen containing two windows, of equal sizes. In one, Clinton continued his address, a warplane behind him. The other showed a live feed from a camera placed at a Macedonian frontier crossing.

As Clinton spoke in one window, Kosovar refugees walked past the camera in the other, emerging from the night into the glare of the television lights. This was not, as so often reported by correspondents, a "tide" or "flood" of refugees. It was a sequence of individuals, walking urgently and looking askance into the camera, unaware of the dramatic way in which the footage was being used.

This was about immediacy, in more ways than one. Immediacy is CNN's distinguishing feature, and here it was delivering a double dose. The effect was to create a trenchant visual commentary, in which the President's promises of an eventual solution contrasted starkly with the catastrophic rate at which the crisis was developing right then. When Clinton had the screen to himself, he sounded assured and steadfast. When he had to share it with the refugees for whom he had assumed responsibility, his words sounded less convincing.

Less obviously, but fundamentally, this was also about the profound impact that computer interfaces are having on other media. In Remediation (MIT Press, price pounds 20), Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin explore how new media appropriate techniques from older media, and how older media borrow from new ones in turn. They note how television news has come to look less like cinema in miniature and more like a computer desktop. This is more apparent on cable and satellite channels than on British terrestrial ones. The BBC has prided itself on having the most sophisticated visual effects in its news broadcasts, as well as the best correspondents. Thus BBC news programmes have the most arresting graphics, and tend to leave the screen clear for their reporters.

Sky News, on the other hand, is more typical of the trend Bolter and Grusin describe. The screen may feature a channel logo, a digital time display, a picture of the reporter, text identifying the reporter or the story, and a window showing still or video images to accompany the report. It looks rather like a website; and CNN's stunning piece of news theatre at the frontier post was nothing if not a transfer to broadcast television of the webcam, which stays put and shows whatever may or may not be happening in front of it.

Meanwhile the broadcasters' on-line services offer video clips, and try to deliver the same immediacy as their broadcasting parents. The BBC on-line news is keenly aware of the Corporation motto, that nation shall speak to nation, and the results can be incongruous. Viewers logging on to news pages recently will have been offered video news in Welsh, Russian, Spanish, Arabic, Cantonese and Mandarin. And, as if to confirm conservative fears about the Balkanisation of the United Kingdom, radio news feeds have been provided from the BBC's Serbian, Albanian, Macedonian and Scottish services and are highlighted on the general news page. The latter has a button labelled Good Morning Scotland, but the BBC has resisted the temptation to say Good Morning Balkans.

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