The News: As ITN goes in search of millions, the BBC finds one eloquent soul

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The Independent Culture
So the axe has fallen. The journalists didn't want it. The viewers didn't want it. The politicians didn't want it. But who are the people's elected representatives, or the people themselves, to stand in the way of the sacred right of businessmen to attract more advertising revenue?

Of course, it is not as if the businessmen in question were actual entrepreneurs. They are merely lucky enough to have been standing around under the tree when the rules changed and the golden apples fell into their apron. If they are foolish enough to throw away one of the best brands in British television, on the off chance of pulling some of the audience for old movies away from Sky, then well, that's business, sunshine.

I have railed several times in recent weeks against the vague new orthodoxy which argues that people are bored with serious news. News at Ten will dive to an earlier slot in search of a few million more viewers, many of whom won't be back from work in time. It is dismaying to have to repeat it so soon. And there will be plenty more to say about all this in due course. The sinking of News at Ten, after all, is hardly news: just a depressing confirmation of what we knew already. As my old friend Chuck Morgan once memorably put it, the galoots are loose.

EARLIER in the week, however, I caught a lovely, pre-galoot documentary on BBC2 called Minders. It was both entertaining and informative. But it also raised in my mind some difficult questions about foreign news on television.

In a great many parts of the world, the local government won't let you film without a "minder": a man, or sometimes woman, from the government information office, or the Ministry of Defence, or whatever, who acts as your interpreter and escort.

Sometimes minders act as honorary researchers. Sometimes they are obnoxious. Often they are spies. Almost always they are caught in a conflict of loyalties. They want to help you. But they also want to reflect their employer's point of view. In a country like Iraq, recently and perhaps again soon our enemy, and still suffering from sanctions we impose, with a cruel dictator's face leering down from every wall, these conflicts are peculiarly delicate.

Shaun McAllister had the good idea of making a film about his minder. Kiffah was an English teacher, out of work for the last three years. The $120 he earned in tips in a week when the foreign press was in town on the off chance of another war represented more money than he had earned in several years. But then came Kofi Annan and a settlement. CNN and the others packed up and went home. Kiffah was duly made redundant.

"Do you trust me?" Shaun asked, and Kiffah replied, "I invited you to my house. I do not invite everyone, not even my Iraqi friends."

Kiffah duly took his English friend home, introduced him to his mother and father, and, by sheer luck, they were on hand when Kiffah's brother came home after 16 years as a prisoner.

Kiffah had suffered from the war as well as from the Saddam regime (though of course he never mentioned that). His parents' large and comfortable house was bare of furniture; that had had to be sold. He sold his record collection, too. "Elvis, Andy Williams, Sinatra, They are my life. I sold them." And he showed his English friend the spaces on the walls of his den ("my kingdom") where he had taken down and burned cherished pictures of British footballers: Bobby Moore, "like a film star." Peter Shilton and above all Kevin Keegan. (At the end, the BBC filmed a brief interview in which Keegan sent Kiffah his best wishes.)

"You're crazy," said McAllister. "You sold your watch, you lost your job, and yet you insist on buying me dinner."

"If my guest is satisfied," Kiffah replied, like a grand caliph out of the Arabian Nights, "that is more important than my watch."

I learned more about Iraq from this documentary than from a thousand bites on CNN or ITN. I learned that Iraqis eat outrageous purple ice-creams, go to nightclubs, dance and drink beer, that there are a lot of cars in the streets. The cost of sanctions for ordinary people is real, but the women ululating in mass demos and showing their dead babies' coffins to CNN are staged.

Above all, I felt I had met a real human being in Kiffah, an ageing bachelor with a big moustache who felt life was passing him by. "I was more handsome, better than now," he said, as he showed his English friend a snapshot of himself with his arms round two girls in a London pub.

Those were his "golden days". "I had many dreams," he said. "I had a wish to go all over the world without being a refugee. I stayed unmarried for that reason. Life is very beautiful, but we complicate it."

"Are you proud of your country?" McAllister asked. Kiffah stretched his arms. "Should I?" For that alone, the man who recruited him as a minder deserved to lose his job.

How much more we learn from a documentary like this than from the foreign news we watch on television. Long ago, when a Kinglake or a Richard Burton travelled in the Middle East, he would spend two or three years reaching his goal. On the way he would learn a smattering of three or four languages. He would meet people, talk to them late into the night.

Now the snippets we see are given to us by men and women who never really engage with the countries they visit. They descend out of the skies for a few days. They know nothing of the language or the history, and little of the feelings of the people they meet. They generally treat their minders like inferiors, and yet they are utterly dependent on them. And not all of their minders are Kiffah.

Most of the time these new reporters can do little more than "reinforce our stereotypes, or their bosses'." Thanks to Shaun McAllister's sensitive film, and to Kiffah, I know a little more than I did about Iraq, and a bit more about life. In a week when the ITV regulators seem determined that we should know less, that is no small thing.