BBC 24-Hour News Service: What's so special about shirt sleeves?
A founder member of The Independent David Lister joined the paper in 1986 as Assistant Home Editor. He became the paper's arts correspondent in 1988 and is now Arts Editor and writes a column each Saturday. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts.
Tuesday 11 November 1997
Too much politics, not enough education, health and arts. And, asks Arts News Editor David Lister, do trouser suits and shirts necessarily mean a radical agenda?
In one of the first news bulletins from BBC News 24 the newscaster announced that the Spice Girls had sacked 19 of their management. This seemed an excessively feisty act, even for such an allegedly feisty outfit. Until it occurred to me that the manager from whom they had parted ran a company called "19".
It's a small mistake, maybe, but I used to sleep soundly in my bed believing that the BBC didn't make mistakes, even small ones.
I felt another small niggle when presenter Sarah Montague introduced an item about the film Keep The Aspidistra Flying. "Now let's see if I can get this right," she smiled with that wearyingly familiar television presenter's conspiratorial smile to the viewers, as she struggled with the pronunciation. The film critic present helped out: "It's based on a novel by George Orwell actually, but not one of his well known ones".
Oh, come on.
I'm equally not sure why BBC presenters on News 24 have all discarded their jackets. The excellent Gavin Esler, who it is good to see fronting a news programme, claims that News 24 will be authoritative but "not stuffy... it might even be fun". Well, the odd person in shirtsleeves might look relaxed. When everyone is wearing them, it looks like a uniform, so studiedly and deliberately relaxed it is actually stuffy.
And who is responsible for the idea which has taken rootthat for a news programme to look authentic, it must have people wandering about in the background and chatting at their computer screens? At one point a man and a woman were chatting so animatedly I desperately put my head against the TV to try to see what was on their computer screen: a love letter? An e-mail from the Spice Girls' management or the George Orwell Society? It was, it was distracting. Whenever I see the people in the background shuffling around self-consciously, I think of that wonderful April Fool Grandstand played on Des Lynam, when the self conscious scufflers behind him started a fist fight.
With Sky and CNN already offering 24 hour news services, it does seem to me that there is one essential characteristic that a BBC 24 hour service must have. It must look and behave recognisably like the BBC, otherwise what is the point?
I winced when the woman on the trailer for the Business News programme said breathlessly "It will be quite different from other programmes you have seen. It won't be grey men in grey suits". But if some of the movers and shakers in the business world happen to be grey men in grey suits, then they are the people I want to see. Why is the BBC falling for these producer led cliches, prioritising presentation over information?
I'm not sure I want business news to be different from any business news I've seen before. What does need to be different from much of what we've seen before is the general news agenda. News 24 seemed to have a pretty conventional agenda in its half-hour bulletins, politics, international affairs and the usual "and finally" style funny. Education, arts and health need to have a higher profile.
It was certainly good to see a book programme on the channel in a prime time spot with Sir Robin Day hosting. It needs to be more of a magazine format; a half hour discussing one book (Paul Johnson's history of America) is too much of an arguably good thing, though Johnson can always be relied upon to spice things up. Mind you, even that didn't set me musing as much as Lord David Owen saying: "I fell in love with an American so I had to read American history". Was it a pre-marriage initiation test?
A science review too, albeit at 3.30am, was a welcome addition. But the entertainment look-ahead, leading off with Cindy Beale's return to EastEnders was too narrow - television reporting television with the odd movie thrown in. Theatre, dance, music, literature should all feature. The agenda could be significantly widened. That's more important than taking off your jackets.
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