TV Review: Dispatches

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The Independent Culture
"What more details can you give us?" - It's often the first cliche a studio-based news presenter will reach for, curiosity at a loss in the face of ignorance. Yesterday morning it captured something of the sombre prurience generated by all terrible events, the combined desire to ask why and how, along with a dread of knowing the worst. The massacre in Dunblane exposed the news process in all its mechanical simplicity, as a system designed to take the contingent and unexpected and process it into something digestible, an "issue" which might fit one or other of the boxes we have ready for such occasions: Something Must Be Done, A Community In Shock. Before long, the cliches were falling on Dunblane like snow, obscuring an event of awful uniqueness beneath a blanket of mass-produced words.

All morning the news teams were working with almost nothing - the number of deaths (steadily growing) and their location. They had no on-the-scene cameras, no eye-witnesses, none of the usual apparatus of information. So they turned to politicians, that unfailing spring of "reaction". Incredulity was the consistent note - "I cannot believe it", "Inconceivable", "Unbelievable" "Mind boggling", "Inexplicable" were phrases that sounded again and again. But it wasn't very long before the incomprehensible began, subtly, to be appropriated for the world of politics - in which tragedies are avoidable and lessons must be learned. "A sad day for the education system?" one newsman asked Nigel de Gruchy. ITN included a package on anxieties about school security, as if such random violence might be contained by bigger fences. Other bulletins raised the possibility of a re-examination of the firearms laws. There was nothing really dishonourable here - just the inexorable conversion of a heartbreaking story into that conventional challenge to journalistic instincts - a breaking story.

With the awards season upon us, what are known in the trade as "Bafta Repeats" are becoming more conspicuous - a moment when likely prospects are sent round the paddock again to catch the eye of the juries. Last year's Dispatches (C4), on British involvement in the sale of torture devices, has already won the Royal Television Society award for best home current-affairs programme of 1995. It also won the more prestigious honour of being calumniated from the Government benches as "scaremongering" and "contrived", reflexes which later cost the DTI pounds 55,000 in the libel courts. Michael Heseltine was also obliged to apologise to Martyn Gregory, the reporter involved. Last week the original programme was repeated; this week Dispatches added some new evidence and, justifiably, crowed over the Government's defeat.

Not that much new evidence, to be honest, just some more secret filming of British businessmen explaining how to dodge the law. After the first programme, one pinstriped foghorn had expressed his outrage that the reporters were "prepared to entrap people into saying things", but they didn't appear to need much seduction. One man offered a macabre testimonial to the quality of the electrical prods, saying "You can actually use these to hit people with. They don't fall apart like some of this stuff." Another explained how the Ministry of Defence had helped him to get an export licence for fragmentation grenades, an anti-personnel weapon. Call them "anti-ambush grenades" and there should be no problem, explained the men from the ministry. On this logic, electric batons, used to deliver excruciating pain to torture victims all over the world, might be termed an "Interrogator Clothing Protection Device" - no unsightly stains with electricity.

Confronted with their failure to police this odious trade, the Government either lies or prevaricates. "The first part of this question could only be answered at disproportionate cost", was the reply given to Ann Clwyd when she tabled a specific inquiry about the torture weapons. This is what's known as being "economical with the truth". How lucky we are to have such thrifty masters.