Television: The News: The greatest story never told

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The Independent Culture
It is quite possible that the President of the United States is on his way to be sent for trial by the Senate on an act of impeachment - something that hasn't happened since 1865. It is possible that Nato aircraft will strike targets in Serbia. The world abounds with wars and rumours of wars.

Yet by far the biggest story of the day is the world economic crisis. Since Thailand devalued the baht in July 1997, the economic outlook has been transformed. Korea, Malaysia and Indonesia have each seen dreams of affluence crumble. The Japanese banking system is on the brink. The Russian economy has collapsed, and its political system may follow. Brazil stands on wet sand.

For the time being, western Europe and the US are relatively unaffected, though financial markets there too have reflected fear. No doubt jeremiads about impending economic collapse are exaggerated. At worst, we probably face a severe, perhaps short-lived, downturn, not a Great Depression. Even more absurd are the voices announcing, in panic or in schadenfreude, that capitalism itself has had its day.

Yet this is the biggest story of the year, and television doesn't know how to cover it. More importantly, that failure reveals alarming limitations in television news's capacity to reveal the world as it really is.

Take the "hedge funds". These ferociously dangerous speculative engines are powerful enough to destabilise countries. The rush to liquidate hedge fund positions in speculative plays between Japanese and American securities pushed the dollar down by 24 per cent in a day, nearly upsetting the global applecart. Did anyone explain what a hedge fund is, how it works, how it has nothing to do with hedging, but is simply a euphemism for dangerously- geared gambling? No one.

One problem is that the economic sphere is a mental construct. Of course there are very real trucks, bushels of wheat and gold bars. But the tools with which we measure both them and changes in their production and exchange are highly abstract.

A second difficulty is the almost unimaginable size of the transactions involved. Millions have given way to billions, billions to trillions, and the ordinary mind blanches before such abstractions. A mind dazzled by a million dollars flinches from the numbers involved in the world's foreign exchange markets.

Television, on the contrary, thrives on the particular, the local, the specific. So, confronted with an economic story that is about abstractions, astronomic numbers and complex concepts, television news falls back on techniques that are tried and familiar - but woefully inadequate.

The main expedients are: graphics, wallpaper, pundits and patronisingly over-simplified interviews. There is nothing wrong with any of them individually. But the way they are used on most bulletins is a recipe for invincible ignorance in the viewer.

Nothing wrong with graphics: properly devised, used and explained. If only. Wallpaper is the term for vaguely appropriate film. The reporter speaks of economic developments, and the viewer sees factories or computer screens that would look much the same however the economic numbers were moving.

Pundits are as good, or as bad, as their knowledge, their ability to communicate and the time they are given to explain complex and unfamiliar ideas. The best communicator in the world cannot say much about the role of hedge funds in the collapse of the dollar against the yen in 20 seconds.

As for patronising interviews, they are part of a culture that shrinks bites to a length that wouldn't feed a goldfish. The underlying assumption is that the punters are too stupid to understand economic news. Yet it affects everyone. It is about jobs and prosperity, yes, but it is also about dreams and power.

One fallacy is the idea that economic news is about "markets". This seems to be based on the "discovery" of the free market by some publicists in the 1970s, as if markets had not been around since people first planted crops.

Closely allied is the fallacy that the all-important economic indices are those of equity markets: the Financial Times share index, its brothers in Tokyo, Hong Kong and Frankfurt, and the almighty Dow. Equity markets are an important indication of economic health, but other indices, such as those for Gross National Product, foreign exchange rates and employment are more important, even for understanding what the Dow and the FTSE 100 are likely to do next.

Lastly, it is a crass error to isolate economic reporting in a ghetto called, or thought of as, "business news". Asking stockbrokers to interpret the world is a sloppy habit. If war is too important to be left to soldiers, the economy is too important to be left to brokers.

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