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The Independent Culture
THERE used to be a news programme, I forget which, that described itself rather grandly as 'A Window on the World'. In its coverage of the siege of the Russian White House yesterday CNN delivered a peculiarly literal version of this promise - its unbroken live coverage being largely composed of static shots out of the office window, which, by a stroke of luck, has a grandstand view of the Russian Parliament Building.

Professional newsgatherers are inclined to be a little snooty about material gathered in this way ('From my position here under my hotel bed . . .' is one version of the joke) but there are advantages to these high-angled shots, occasionally trembling as the telephoto lens tries to catch a distant detail through a haze of magnification. Where the other news stations present you with a controlled narrative in which confusing changes of fortune have been neatly timetabled and chaotic events have been trimmed and tidied for easy consumption, CNN delivers the blended tedium and excitement of real life.

They had the White House surrounded as efficiently as the Russian army, with high-rise cameras on all sides of the building, and at times you could almost feel that you had your elbows resting on a Moscow window-ledge - a little bored now and then and, as a result, disproportionately thrilled by any evidence of action, however small - the sudden belch of smoke from a tank's exhaust, a tidal shift in the crowd of demonstrators that washed over the steps, the flick and bounce of tracer off the walls of a building.

So while the BBC lunchtime bulletin was a model of efficient compression, wrapping up the morning's events with a clarity that had evaded CNN even in its summaries, it was weakened by the sense that reporters had to cast their story forward to fill the gap before the next bulletin. 'It does appear that the battle for the White House is over,' predicted Ben Brown from Moscow. Watching CNN, you could soon see that he had been talking about a lull before a storm. On the BBC, too, you can feel that you're separated from the story by an unnecessary editorial apparatus. 'Is the fighting over, Angus Roxburgh?' asked Ed Stourton, turning not, as you expected, to a live link but to a correspondent who was sitting next to him in the studio.

The question doesn't make sense on CNN because the fighting simply interrupts the punditry. Later in the evening, as two experts filled the empty air with speculation about Yeltsin's next task, the skyline suddenly lit up with the brutal, purposive fireworks of tracer fire. 'Mikes up . . . up, up, up, up, up,' whispered an urgent voice, urging her soundman to capture the sound of a fresh combat that was, at that point, as mystifying to them as it was to us.

This isn't an unmitigated virtue. Like the crowds who lined nearby parapets and strolled with disconcerting casualness up to the very edge of the battle, you can find yourself watching with a spectator's ignorant appetite for action. But if you want your news raw rather than cooked, no other channel comes close.

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