Television News: Let's hear it for talking heads

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There is a certain grammar to television news, and indeed to all factual television. Take the briefest report. It is almost invariably built up of just three elements: pictures - "general views", or GVs - of what the reporter is talking about; a report; either voice-over or to camera; and an interview.

The one thing you can't do without, though, is pictures, preferably dramatic, arresting pictures. And that is why, so far, the most important story of the day is being dangerously under-reported, and in some cases hardly reported at all.That story, of course, is the meltdown of Russia.

The point was strikingly underlined on the usually admirable Channel Four News on Wednesday. The reporter, Lindsay Hillsome, stated honestly enough from Congo that she and her cameraman were "stuck in the hotel". But from inside the hotel, the cameraman was able to grab two shots or sequences. One was a long pan of a helicopter flying over the city. And the other was a sequence of top shots of Congolese soldiers stopping cars in the street outside the hotel. That was enough to carry what I timed as a five-minute report on the dangerous situation in central Africa. On the crisis in Russia - potentially far more dangerous for all of us - C4 News carried no more than 15 seconds. The reason: the only pictures were shots of Forex traders' screens showing the rouble falling.

Now in 1991, when Boris Yeltsin stood on a tank outside the Moscow White House, television news showed us endless, riveting footage. Nothing mysterious about that: television news is about pictures. If the pictures are dramatic, editors can't get enough of them. If there aren't any pictures, you can't do the item, or at best, all you can do is have a presenter or news reader record the bare fact that a former superpower, with nuclear weapons and 150 million inhabitants, is falling apart.

Right? No. Not right. Pseudo-realist, but wrong.

You can always get pictures if you want them.

Tens of millions of Russians haven't been paid for months. The banks are collapsing. Western banks are at risk for perhaps $50bn. That might, just might, tip the European and American economies down the slope after the economies of East Asia.

The point is, it is a story worth reporting. That means going out and finding out. It doesn't mean waiting until someone comes through with some dramatic pictures from Eurovision or Reuters or CNN. There are a lot of ways editors could get pictures. They could send a reporter and a cameraman to talk to people in the Russian provinces, where things are desperately worse than in the flashy island of precarious prosperity that is Moscow. It could mean going and talking to people who know about what is happening and asking them. You mean talking heads! Why not? The Sermon on the Mount was a talking head, and so was the Gettysburg oration. Talking heads don't have to be dull. It depends what they say, and how they say it.

I'm not picking on Channel Four News. ITN had very little on the Russian story, too: about 10 words from Dermot Murnaghan at 10.19pm on Wednesday, according to my notes. But the BBC did a lot better at nine o'clock, with two talking heads. Crisp reporting from that excellent correspondent Alan Little, and searching questions from Peter Jay, in his element as a heavyweight prophet of doom. The report addressed the big question: is the experiment with the free market unravelling in Russia? And is the country heading back to central planning?

If that is what we are coming to, then reports of one of the cardinal events of our time, the death of Communist Russia, were premature. Is that dull?

I end with a prediction. We will hear a lot more of the Russian story soon. Because it's so important? No. Because George Soros has lost a packet there, even for him. And Bill Clinton is due to go to Moscow for a summit. Suddenly the gatekeepers will find Moscow worth a crew's fares.

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