Cut! Why TV mustn't go soft on hard news

Broadcasters say that the time delay on live news announced last week would spare viewers' sensitivities. But should we really sanitise reports, asks Martin Bell
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The Independent Online

This time, they've really done it. The BBC is the nation's premier news broadcaster - always in terms of quantity and more often than not in terms of quality. It has some of the best journalists around. It retains its grip, for most of the time, on a serious news agenda. It sets the standards by which others are judged. It has recovered from the Gilligan/Kelly/Hutton imbroglio, in which it was generally seen to be right, as the Government was seen to be wrong. It lost that battle but won the war. Unlike the Government, it is widely trusted. It should be holding its positions on the high ground, not diving into the trenches.

So why is it for ever running for cover without even the excuse of hostile fire? Under new editorial guidelines revealed last week it has committed itself to a time delay before broadcasting scenes of "sensitive and challenging events". This restriction, we are told, was brought on by last year's terrorist atrocity in Beslan in which 344 hostages died, half of them children. The scenes of terror and bloodshed were indeed distressing. They were broadcast around the world as they happened, not only by the BBC. But the BBC was, typically, the first to flinch from the consequences. It has now decided that, in future, it doesn't want to upset people with live and unedited images of real world violence. If a 9/11 were to happen tomorrow, the BBC would no longer be out there competing with its rivals. Instead it would avert its gaze from the news of the day and provide live coverage only of events that it deemed to be insensitive and unchallenging: Wimbledon perhaps, or the Eurovision Song Contest. Where will it end? With Terry Wogan reading the 10 o'clock news?

The length of the time delay is left unspecified. Minutes? Hours? Days? Even the shortest delay will have the viewers switching in droves to other, less neurotic and uncensored channels. It will leave them suspicious of the filtered version of reality on offer. And it will compromise the BBC's greatest asset, which is its global reputation as a trustworthy source of news. People will reasonably ask: if they are hiding this from us, what else are they hiding?

BBC News, for all its strengths, has a capacity for ducking and weaving before blows that haven't yet even been aimed at it. Michael Cockerell, one of its honourable old soldiers, once memorably described this as the posture of the preemptive cringe.

The argument about televised violence is an old one. I was on the losing side of it for much of the 1990s, urging the editors to show the realities of the wars in Croatia and Bosnia: not all of them, of course, but enough to be truthful. Instead, we featured the outgoing fire but not the incoming, the militiamen blazing away in the ruins with their Kalashnikovs, but not the carnage and the casualties at the other end.

This was done, I was told, in the interests of good taste. But war is a bad-taste business. All that the censorship achieved, I believe, was to show it as an acceptable way of settling differences. No wonder that our present government, none of whose ministers know anything of warfare, is so addicted to it.

It remains one of life's small mysteries why the BBC should spend £50m on the little-watched News 24. Now eight years old, this enjoys the melancholy distinction of being the most frequently relaunched channel in broadcasting history. The BBC, like ITN, rushed into the rolling news business because it was there. They did it to compete with Sky, and without really thinking through the implications. As a result, we now have at least two more all-news channels than we need - indeed, in my view, three more.

The real charge against them is not that they upset people, but that they show so much more than they know. They put a premium on speed rather than accuracy. Time and again, with the mantra "Breaking news" they go to air with reports that turn out to be false or downright misleading. There was even a time when one news channels had on its screen savers the wonderfully revealing slogan "Never wrong for long". That should be the motto of rolling news - and, in an ideal world, its epitaph.

I got a fascinating insight into the feverishness of the medium one day when I agreed to do the newspaper review on the ITV News Channel. The anchor-woman was the evergreen and graceful Angela Rippon. The US Defense Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, was at the time attending a Nato meeting at a hotel in Turkey. Angela was required to read out a late-breaking report that a bomb had exploded at the hotel and four people had been injured. Ten minutes later, she broadcast a correction: it hadn't been a bomb, but a gas explosion.

Journalists caught up in the whirligig of rolling news would do well to heed Kipling's wise advice to deliver their reports "soberly, and with what truth is possible". The proposal for a time delay on live coverage will do nothing to address the medium's fundamental shortcomings. It will merely add another layer of unbelievability.

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