Television: Read his lips: that's what television's for

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The Independent Culture
Two stories dominated the news on television all week. One was tragic but uplifting; the other, essentially tawdry and dispiriting. Omagh is what television news does best: the Monica Lewinsky affair opens a vista of what television news could become if all goes wrong. Then, on Thursday, the news of America's revenge for the bombing of the Nairobi and Dar-es-Salaam embassies. A coup de theatre: no wonder they say Bill Clinton is going to join Steven Spielberg on the board of Dream Works when he's through with the White House.

The images of Omagh are haunting. Snapshots of three little boys, grinning broadly, all now bombed to smithereens. The leader of the Ulster Unionists, head bowed in prayer with the Taoiseach and the leader of Sinn Fein in a Catholic church as the priests swung their censers. A beach with the setting sun reflected on the wet sand, and a woman talking about how a group of Spanish children had been coming there for their holidays for years, and how some of them had gone to Omagh for the day. The wrong day. "The old," said the woman quietly, "the young, the unborn, all murdered."

The funeral procession for a young woman, pregnant with twins, and her daughter. A long, skilful panning shot, with the cortege and thousands of mourners bobbing in and out of sight behind a long, green Irish hedge on the way to a lonely, grey Irish church. Technique in the service of powerful, disciplined reporting. "We want the time to grieve," said Oliver Gibson, whose niece was killed. "Underneath, there is a pent-up, seething rage."

In Washington there was not so much rage as hysteria, voyeurism, febrile excitement, and moral confusion. Little wonder that commentator after commentator borrowed Senator Pat Moynihan's phrase about "defining deviancy down". We have got so used to people sleeping in cardboard boxes, panhandling in the street, breaking into cars, says the senator, that we don't see it as deviant any more. Have we got so used to the idea that the President of the United States is a serial groper and barefaced equivocator that his behaviour is no longer deviant?

The week began with mounting hysteria. The cameras left "Monica Beach", the pavement outside the courthouse on Pennsylvania Avenue where the crews have been getting tans all summer waiting for witnesses. Now the action was in the White House.

For more than four hours, POTUS ("President Of The United States") gave evidence. With the time difference, it was three in the morning here before the waiting, as ITN put it, was over. Four minutes of Clinton, by turns slightly contrite, lachrymose, defiant, and still not quite credible. It was all, he said, "between the two people I love and our God". I started counting the spoons.

Does anybody believe his denial of sexual relations, on the grounds that fellatio is not a sexual relation, was "legally accurate"? Does anyone believe that this umpteenth slip really came as a surprise to his wife, the clever lawyer who has been coaching him to talk his way out of sexual imbroglios for years? Does anyone believe him, period?

By the end of the week, with POTUS and his nuclear family restoring their equanimity on Martha's Vineyard, the storm clouds were lowering again over the White House, and dissonance was growing between the politicians and the people. Television news showed this well. The people were disposed to forgive, impatient to forget, willing to attribute the Goldilocks condition of the economy and the stock market to Clinton's personal brilliance. The politicians were cautious, reluctant to go against this popular mood.

Clinton's disastrous four minutes began to change all that. Viewers in Cheers-type bars laughed out loud when he spoke of his God. One of the more memorable images was that of Senator Orrin Hatch, a crusted conservative from Mormon, Utah, who so far departed from senatorial gravitas as to mutter, "What a jerk!". (The cruise missiles have already persuaded him to change that judgment.)

There is in all of this a genuine news story. It does matter to all of us who is President of the United States, what kind of man he is, how he behaves himself, whether he will survive and whether we can trust him. But long before the end of the week, another agenda was beginning to show through the Jerry Springer, Vanessa Feltz agenda. (Vanessa pushed her luck too far this week, and was fired by Anglia for asking for almost as many pounds in salary as she gets viewers to her freak show.)

This new agenda is the unconcealed inquisitiveness of Your Call, Sky's "interactive" programme. "You have your say on the main issues of the day". (Sky's regular coverage, it should be said, was respectable.)

The presenter sits in the middle of what looked like a Internet website. Behind him pictures of Monica Lewinsky in a swimsuit, even an offer of "eleven nude pictures" of Monica floated by as "you" - we? - had our say. Every now and then the presenter interrupted to say, off the top of his head, that call-ins were running two to one in the President's favour.

Andrew from London said: "The guy's doing a good job." Jane from Epsom thought Clinton's private life was his own business. And Lana from London asked a good question: "Does anybody care?" Uninformed opinion about titillating trivia? Is this the future of television news?

One of the advantages to an American President of sending in the cruise missiles, the Marines or the fighter-bombers, is that the White House is in control of the story. With the grand jury story, the networks are free to roam at will, finding contrary opinion to offset whatever the President says, from Little Rock to Monica's Beach. But on Thursday, all there was to show was the President, in a dark suit, standing in front of a giant American flag, with a shot of some buildings on fire near Khartoum, and archive footage of Osama bin Laden.

So, literally, the networks, and the American people, rally round the flag. In time, they will get around to asking: Was the response proportionate? Was it effective? Was it, to borrow a word from the President's earlier speech, "inappropriate"? But those are questions for the future.

We may have uneasy memories of earlier presidential coups that didn't turn out to be quite what we were told: of Johnson and the Tonkin Gulf; Nixon and the Middle East, Reagan and Libya and Grenada, George Bush and those smart bombs sailing "surgically" through Baghdad windows. But television has learnt once again that, when the trumpet sounds, the man in the White House doesn't charge: he writes the script.