Last week, the fledgling Channel 5 announced that its main nightly news programme, anchored by Kirsty Young (above), was moving from 8.30pm to 7pm, where it will compete against Channel 4 News with Jon Snow (above right). Channel 5 claims to be attracting a mysterious "lost generation" of news viewers who are young, smart, attractive to advertisers - and currently avoiding traditional news programmes like the plague. This generation consists of people like Eleanor and her hearsay news gathering friends.
Eleanor herself was part of a straw poll Real Life conducted last week in London's three great centres of youth activity - Soho, Knightsbridge and Clerkenwell. In all, 30 twenty-to-thirtysomethings, from professionals to students, were given our simple News Quiz. The level of the answers was pretty consistent: all shared a lack of any real knowledge about anything.
It wasn't so much downright ignorance. There was a general vague grasp that things were going on somewhere. But the specifics were a wee bit hazy. Neil Hamilton, for instance, was thought to be a bad thing by most people, but only one person knew what he was supposed to have done. "Isn't he involved in a sex scandal with a schoolgirl prostitute?" said Emily, 25. "No, I think he was up to something with his wife," said her friend Anna, 26, who worked with Emily at a stockbrokers. "Didn't he steal money from Dodi's dad?" said Edward, 27, an Internet consultant. Cherie Blair and the Spice Girls were the only personalities that everyone knew something about. Indeed, Cherie Blair scored better than the Spice Girls if the fab five are taken as a body corporate. People positively volunteered information. "She's a lawyer, isn't she," said Helen, 23, a researcher. "She was at a fashion show recently laughing at the clothes," said Heather, 27.
William Hague, on the other hand, did very badly indeed. People seemed only to have the faintest grasp of his existence. "He's the Clive Anderson one," said Helen. "Bald geezer," said Anthony, 21. "Oh, you know, looks a bit like a gnome," said Sandra, who was a dentist, for heaven's sake. And that range of opinions came from the slight majority who were aware that John Major wasn't still in charge.
Only two people knew what ERM stood for and one of those was an economics student. Everyone else assumed the E stood for European and the M stood for money but they couldn't work out what R meant. "Round" said one. Eh? "Well, some of those European coins are weird shapes with holes in the middle," he said, his anonymity being preserved in his own interests. "Maybe they want them all to be round like British coins."
Foreign affairs was an all-round bust. No one at all knew who was killing who in Algeria. They didn't even know that anyone was being killed. "Where's Algeria?" was the almost unanimous response, some thinking Algeria was near Portugal. "Didn't you go on a package holiday there two years ago?" said Al, 24, to Ed, 26. It was a positive relief to find that everyone knew that Britain had handed Hong Kong back to China this year and that E coli was bad for you, whether it was a bacteria, a virus, an insect or a strain of CJD. (Opinion was divided on which, exactly.)
Hong Kong scored reasonably well, although some people seemed to have the place confused with India. The French lorry drivers' strike, on the other hand, got a huge and stunningly correct response. "It's about pay, isn't it," they all said. "But all strikes are about pay, aren't they?" said Richard, who worked at Smithfield market. "It was just a lucky guess."
What may seem staggering is that every one of those questioned firmly believed that keeping up with news and current events was very, very important. Not a single person thought it was OK to be out of touch, no matter how out of touch this questionnaire suggested they were. They thought they had an adequate supply of news, although when pushed as to where exactly they sourced this information, things got a little murky.
"I do read the newspapers although I don't buy more than one a week," said Julian, 29, a club promoter. "I find the TV news boring. It goes on too long and it's a bit stuffy." "Someone's always got a paper lying around and you read
that," said Tim, 23. "You don't really need to buy one for yourself, because you'll probably lose it anyway." Most gathered their news in a piecemeal fashion, picking up the headlines from the radio in the morning and from flicking through whatever papers they come across during the day. They also find out what's going on from general chit-chat.
In this news-by-numbers way - a pinch of radio, a taste of borrowed paper, breakfast TV and the early evening TV headlines - a view of the world can be built up which gives everyone the impresson that they know what's what. Indeed Ian Lewis, head of programme evaluation at Zenith Media, the UK's largest media buyer, argues that the questions I asked which got the best response were those which fell within the agenda of pop radio. Cherie Blair, the Spice Girls, Neil Hamilton and E coli could be on Radio One; Algeria just isn't.
"Young people consume media in a completely different way," says Mark Ratcliff, who owns the youth research company Murmur. "In the old days, people would sit down at the TV and view possibly one channel through the evening. The young are appointment-to-view watchers." They rarely settle in front of a TV. Cable and satellite, remote controls, video recorders, computer games and even plain old going-down-the-pub get in the way of watching the news.
"This is a very utilitarian generation," argues Tim Gardam, head of news at Channel 5 and a former editor of both Newsnight and Panorama. "They don't watch news but they do plan their lives, so they aren't a feckless bunch. I think they are alienated by current news because the BBC made a classic mistake. They knew that people trusted TV news and not newspapers, but they confused trust with authority. In the last 10 years there has been a decline of faith in authority and I think that news reporting has suffered."
"Young people aren't reading newspapers or watching television," says Ian Lewis. "Readers of papers and watchers of news are older than ever before and every single news programme loses audience from the programme that precedes it. News is basically in a long term decline."
For this, the broadcasters and newspapers must accept responsibility. If our straw poll shows anything, it shows the lost generation believes news is important and keeping up to date is the right thing to do. They just can't find anyone who gives them the news in the way they want to consume it. One thing they all agree on, though, is that "dumbing down" is not the answer. Not a single person believed the stories should be simplified purely for them as they found that patronising.
Supplying this new breed with the news they need is not about talking down to them or throwing bite-size nuggets of information their way. It's about realising that the old rules of broadcasting, in particular, have changed. The days when the monolithic TV stations scheduled in the "right" way and we fitted our viewing in around them are over. If television is to provide us with news, it must find out how we live and make sure the news is there when we want it in the way we want it. Otherwise, what's the point in having it at all? Pretty soon, no one will be watching.
1. Why was Montserrat evacuated?
2. Who is he?
3. Why are they striking?
4. What is E coli?
5. Who is she?
6. Who's killing who in Algeria?
7. Who is Neil Hamilton?
8. What are the Spice Girls' real names?
9. What does ERM stand for?
10. What happened in Hong Kong this year?
The answers: 1. Island devastated by volcanic eruption 2. William Hague 3. French lorry drivers' pay dispute 4. Bacterium 5. Cherie Blair 6. Battle between Algerian Army and Islamic Armed Group, but many Islamists feared dead at hands of government agents eager to prevent a ceasefire. 7. Tory MP in cash-for-questions scandal 8. Emma Bunton, Victoria Adams, Melanie Chisholm, Melanie Brown, Geri Halliwell 9. Exchange Rate Mechanism 10. Hong Kong handed back to China