TELEVISION / I say distorter and you say reporter . . .

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The Independent Culture
IT IS a bad sign when you can't mention the decline in the country's productivity without being accused of Talking Britain Down. All right, so let's ignore the fact that they turn out nicer cars in the Czech Republic, superior cricketers in Sri Lanka and more efficient photocopying machines in Mozambique. There's one thing Britain still does best: in the art of tabloid doorstepping, Britain rules the pavements.

The Hunt for Michael Jackson (BBC 2), which looked at the mechanics of the story that created jobs in journalism like no other scandal since Watergate, shed as much light as a purblind Tory minister being interviewed by the singer's llama, but the supremacy of our very own Rottweilers came shining through. Their American kennel-mates, who don't work in such a small and overcrowded market and so are not driven to the same extremes of gnashing ferocity, could only stand back and stare. We should be proud.

If Hollywood wanted to make a film of this saga, and doubtless 15-strong scriptwriting teams are working on it now, they'll find that the biggest impediment is the lack of a hero with whom audiences can identify. Perhaps the bedroom scenes would be tricky too, but they could be fudged. No one, but no one, comes out of this story with the merest shred of credibility, except for maybe the stringer who broke it but now admits that he is ashamed of the avalanche of bilge he caused. But it's a bit late for shame now.

The award for the most staggering piece of media manipulation goes to LaToya Jackson, who went on record about her brother during the scandal only because she had a fitness video to promote. Well, you gotta make a crust somehow. The National Enquirer, which put 20 reporters and editors on the case, ran a close second. So did the private investigator Ernie Rizzo, who showed up on the scene with absolutely naff-all to tell anyone apart from how he and Jackson's lawyer didn't get on. But he still pocketed a packet.

The idea that news is umbilically tied to money, that one generates the other and vice versa, never loses its shock value. But the picture of a police investigation taking its every cue from information unearthed by journalists was a new one on this columnist. You can foresee the day every mass murderer will be happy to confess, but only to the Daily Slimebag and in return for a seven-figure fee.

The American news programme which led with the story is called Hard Copy (ace reporter: Diane Dimond. Honestly). The show takes its name from a bog-standard journalistic term but in this context, with hacks hounding, hoods hustling and chancers embellishing their story according to the number of noughts on the cheque, the word 'hard' made you connect it with pornography. Our press boys are probably feared and revered across Neverland as 'the hard corps'.

Meanwhile, back on planet Earth, Britain has a world-beating championship, but not a world-beating champion. Hothouse Tennis (C 4) intruded on the Bisham Abbey academy to find out what's being done about it. To this end, advised the voiceover, 'Ian has been working for 18 months to iron out problems in James's serve.' James is 14, going on four, and Ian is an Australian with one of those long, silver hairdos only found on globe-trotting tennis coaches. He used to advise Pat Cash; now he works for the Lawn Tennis Association. Tennis is a cruel sport.

Andrew, meanwhile, talked about his innate dogfighting qualities while enjoying a massage. Andrew is 12, going on 32. He and all his fellow trainees divide their time between the court and the psychologist. It must be the bummest job in the trade for a shrink - talking to young sports boys and girls who best express themselves with a racket and don't have anything wrong with them anyway. 'Try to win,' coach Olga Morozova told her girls, which seemed to sum it up fairly and squarely. In this country it's easier said than done, though. Or is one Talking

Britain Down?

Thomas Sutcliffe is away