Which is fresher, yesterday's news or Jeffrey Bernard?

Old news is exactly the same as new news... the names change, but the stories are all the same
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"THE TRIAL of Louise Woodward enters its second week," said a news bulletin on my radio the other day, which slightly startled me.

Louise Woodward... the name had a familiar ring. Oh, right, she was the nanny who... But surely she was sent to prison years ago. Or acquitted. Or sent to the electric chair, or whatever happened to her. So why was my radio...?

Then I realised.

It wasn't the radio.

It was a tape on my radio/ cassette machine.

I was playing a tape of a programme that I had recorded a year or two back.

If it seems a bit strange to listen to a radio programme a few years after it first went out, I blame it all on a stint I once did as radio reviewer for The Independent on Sunday when, even though the BBC sent me lots of review tapes, I liked to record other programmes off air which looked interesting.

After a while, I stopped being radio reviewer for The Independent on Sunday, but the habits of radio reviewing die hard and I went on listening to as much radio as possible. I also went on taping as much radio as possible, and I still dig out old programmes and listen to them. Yesterday I was listening to Simon Cadell reading from Noel Coward's diaries. The day before that I was listening to Jeffrey Bernard on Desert Island Discs. Both dead, alas, but the programmes were still as live as a bare wire.

And they both had little news bulletins tacked on, which cling to the programmes like barnacles. Most of the programmes, indeed, which I have recorded in the past have little news bulletins tacked on, because the BBC scarcely lets an hour go past on any wavelength without inflicting the news on you, or at least the Reader's Digest selection of items which they consider to be news. So I still find myself listening to news from anywhere in the past five years.

How nostalgic! you may think. How wonderful to be wafted back to the news of yesteryear, and find the headlines gleaming and golden, instead of faded like an old newspaper. How magical to find yourself transported to another era...

Except that it isn't like that at all. What you learn by listening to yesterday's news is that old news is exactly the same as new news. It isn't full of valuable antique news items. It's all junk. And it's all the same junk. It doesn't change at all. Oh, the names change and the countries change, but the stories are all the same. Sometimes they are literally the same - the story about our need to bomb Saddam Hussein into submission, the story about the NHS being on the verge of collapse without more money being pumped in, the story about the England manager's job being in peril, the story about Lockerbie, the story about Railtrack, the story about Tim Henman doing very well just before he was knocked out. These stories that all been going for years and come back unchanged - but mostly they are slightly different stories with the same shape.

There's the attempt on the record story (sometimes hot-air balloons, sometimes cars on salt flats, sometimes round the world yachts) and all the attendant rescue stories.

There's the England-manager's-job-in-jeopardy-story.

There's the threat-to-Tory-leadership story.

There's the English-girl-in-foreign-trial-story.

There's the clean-British-sporting-hero-in-drugs/ drink/ sex-row story.


But you get the idea.

Which leads me, I am afraid, to the conclusion that if the news people were treating the news as soap then, and old headlines are dead from the moment they were born, they are doing it now and today's headlines are still dead from the feet up. And one quick look at the TV headlines or one quick listen to the radio news confirms this. A fuss over "topless" Sophie photos. A fuss over Andrew Motion being made Poet Laureate. A fuss over GM instead of BSE. A question mark hanging over the England manager's job. Tim Henman still getting so far and no further.

We have Lawrence Dallaglio instead of Paul Gascoigne. We had, briefly, Jill Dando instead of Diana, Princess of Wales. And it is all, I am afraid, dead. Dead news, dead information, dead boring.

There's nothing wrong with being dead, of course. Compost is also dead. Manure is dead. Petrol is dead. And compost, manure and fuel give life to other things and help them go, and dead news stories are, in a sense, the mulch for our daily conversation, just as cliches (which are dead phrases) are the lubrication for our conversation...

What was interesting, actually, about the old programme tapes on which I heard those old news bulletins was not that the news was so dead. It was that the news was so dead and the programmes were still so alive.

Ezra Pound once defined literature as follows: "Literature is news that stays news.". And I think good radio is what you have left when you take the news away.