Here's how. The major role that news has been obliged to play in the ratings war has led editors to tamper more and more with news values. Instead of genuine information, they seek to hit us with sensation and emotion. So war reporting means footage of blood and bodies on the street, and if such footage is unavailable, the war goes unreported. So a child's murder plays big if grieving relatives can be induced to appear before the cameras pathetically appealing for help in catching the killer, but loses its claim to headline status if the pictures only show police combing patches of wasteground.
It has become an almost nightly occurrence that the newscaster is obliged to assume a solemn expression and announce: "Some viewers may find these pictures disturbing." In our house that is an immediate cue to switch to Northern Exposure. You've seen one dead Serb or one tearful mother, you've seen them all. Who wants to wallow in a tragedy that you can't relieve? Television news is making us unwilling addicts of Schadenfreude.
Take News At Ten out of its end-of-peak slot and it might slowly revert to delivering what it promises: actual news. Its reporters might ease up on those ludicrous vox pops. Who cares a tuppeny damn for the political knee-jerk of passers-by collared on the street outside ITN Towers, people who, with rare exceptions, appear to have been released into the community only recently?
Over many years, both ITN and BBC News pressed for a longer and longer slot for the mid-evening bulletin. Proper reporting and judicious editorial perspective would have justified the extension. But the perceived need to be "sexy" has required the bulletins to be more and more padded with supposed human interest material, with gossip and speculation, and with stories whose significance, shape and thrust is determined purely by the availability of visuals. No wonder disaster is the biggest news of all. The day cannot be far off when a desperate editor contemplates sending a crew to cause a spectacular crash that may be exclusively recorded on hidden cameras.
So the bulletin that will be News at Ten-Fifteen might profitably be scheduled to end as usual at 10.30, thereby requiring the editor of the day to use some unaccustomed discretion and tact in determining the content and style of the reports therein. Who knows, even the ineffably twee and patronising item usually offered under the shrugging subtitle of "And finally ..." might be dumped where it belongs, on GMTV.
W. STEPHEN GILBERT