The relentless grind of the news machine

TV review

There are times in "Whose News?", Channel 4's season of programmes about the news media, when you think, "How intriguing. They've taken the tedious bits that you never get to see and edited them all back in". Office drudgery is not necessarily any more fascinating because it is in the service of a television image and, though there are obvious comic returns from the contrast between the glossy clichs of the bulletins and the grubby fuss of the newsroom (like the way in which journalists browse so casually over the selection box of human disaster), these can be shallow ironies. The real work of journalists is often more fugitive, a matter of private telephone calls, insinuations, or simply reading the small print.

What is conveyed by the season is the sense of the news industry as a vast unstoppable mechanism, dutifully serviced by operatives who may not even know what purpose is served by it's repetitive motions. It also looks as if someone forgot to fit a safety brake: as the outlets proliferate and the technology improves, the wheels turn ever faster, the vast frame shuddering as it has to synthesise more and more information. Some cracks are already beginning to show - in Dispatches on Wednesday night, Roger Bolton looked at the news managers on both sides of the journalistic fence, an arms race of information in which the politicians and pressure groups appear to be winning. He asked some sharp questions about the increasing tendency for news bulletins to include VNRs, or Video News Releases - that is, footage supplied by interested parties to get their story (not necessarily the story) on screen. Other forms of manipulation are more venerable: "Of course I was trying to manage the news," yelped Bernard Ingham, in his oddly fluting tones, but that was all part of the game, he thought. "I couldn't lie and therefore if they did ask the right question I had to come clean," he added, as if an off-the-record briefing wouldn't melt in his mouth. Roger Bolton let him get away with it, which provided a nice demonstration of how even the best journalists can let their guard slip.

The first episode of Naked News, an examination of media in the United States profiled Ted Turner, the maverick tycoon who runs CNN, the world's first global television news station. Maverick may not quite do him justice, in truth, because Ted's eccentricity has global proportions. One of his colleagues recalls being woken by a telephone call. "Bob. I've got a club and I want you to join." The club, it turned out, was called The Better World Society: annual subscription $25; aims: to stamp out world hunger, clean up the environment and create world peace. After the associate had agreed that he would take on world peace as his own project Turner went away satisfied.

The mechanism for these ambitions is the 24-hour news broadcasts of CNN, a station which began with Turner's frustration at regulatory control (he realised he could show really gory news on cable). Patrick Forbes's film tried to be sardonic about Turner's messianic fervour, wryly questioning whether blanket-coverage of the O J trial was going to bring the nations of the world together, but it couldn't entirely resist Turner's legendary charm. Hardly surprising really; after all, this is a man who persuaded Jane Fonda to marry him from a standing start.

Over on BBC2 there was yet more of the same, with A Little Local Difficulty, Carlo Gbler's slyly comical account of American journalists at work in Northern Ireland. A tale of innocents abroad, it nicely skewered the false authority with which so much journalism is dressed. American ignorance about Sinn Fein's true status was put down to the organisation's great skill in talking to the American press. The "skill" appears to consist in prevaricating slowly, so that those without shorthand don't miss a word.

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