Say no to news on tap

Saddam is arrested, and the rolling-news channels go into overdrive. But, argues Martin Bell, if executives are not careful, 24-hour news can become frenzied and fallible
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The Independent Online

It is with the reporting of a big breaking-news story, such as the Americans' capture of Saddam Hussein, that the advocates of instant news feel vindicated. For a while on Sunday, both BBC and ITV News used their rolling-news services to break into the schedule of their terrestrial channels. No self-respecting network could afford not to "go live" with it. And that was as it should be. New technology has changed the landscape of television news beyond recognition in the last 20 years. But not all those changes have advanced the cause of honest, truthful journalism. It seems a good time to look at the minuses as well as the pluses of the rolling-news phenomenon.

No longer does CNN have the field to itself. It has been joined abroad by a multitude of new services, including BBC World and the Arab channels, such as al-Jazeera, which have successfully broken the Western monopoly on global news. At home, the Americans are challenged by Sky News, BBC News 24 and the ITV News Channel. This is probably more than the country needs and, at £50m a year for News 24, it is certainly more than the BBC can afford. And if News 24 was such a good idea, why so many re-launches?

The theory is attractive. News should be on tap, like water, at the consumers' convenience. But there is a difference. Water is generally clear and unpolluted. Rolling news is not.

Part of the problem is a lack of authenticity. The 24-hour news channels wish it to be known that they bring you the news wherever it breaks, and watch the world with an unblinking eye. They don't, of course. They offer roof-top television instead. It consists of correspondents perched on the roofs of hotels and television stations, exchanging guesswork with other correspondents on other roofs, about the crisis of the moment.

In a conflict such as the war in Afghanistan, where no combat footage was available, the traffic in speculation lasts for months. The news organisations tether one of their reporters to a satellite dish, to be available at all times to answer questions from the anchor in London, New York or Atlanta. This hapless character is known in the BBC as the "dish monkey" - or, if a lady, I regret to say, the "dish bitch". Whatever that function is, it isn't journalism. I know of a reporter who spent two weeks "covering" a crisis in Taiwan and never left his hotel except to go to the TV station.

In my recent book, Through Gates of Fire, I assessed, among other things, embedded journalism in Iraq. I didn't dismiss it out of hand, since it helped to keep some of my friends alive.

Of the dozen journalists killed in the war, only two were "embeds". The rest were working without military protection. At least five of them fell to American fire. Some of the journalism was quite remarkable. I would single out the report by James Mates of ITN on the battle for Nasiriyah. It was honest, thoughtful, brave and understated: it resounded with disturbing echoes of Vietnam. But it wasn't instant news: to put it together, he had been at the scene and taken the time that good reporting needs.

At the other end of the spectrum were the exploits of the rolling-news hounds. One of these was attached to an American armoured column, with his camera showing little but the limitless desert, and announcing breathlessly "this is historic journalism, this is historic television!". It may have been historical. It was certainly hysterical. As is generally the case with 24-hour news, it didn't show much - and what it did show was more than it knew.

The most serious charge against the channels, especially Sky News, is that their door is open to propaganda and dis-information. The war in Iraq featured a series of "breaking-news" stories which, had they been true, would have advanced the allied cause: the early fall of the port of Umm Qasr; the death of Saddam Hussein; the defection of his deputy, Tariq Aziz; the discovery of chemical weapons; and a popular uprising in Basra. But they were not true. They were breaking rumour rather than breaking news.

This leads into the issue of impartiality. Fox News (motto: "fair and balanced"; proprietor: Rupert Murdoch) has already forced CNN into a more flag-waving pro-government editorial stance. Can Sky News, part-owned by Murdoch and run by his son, hold out against the trend? We have to hope for a stiffening of the spines at the sheds in Osterley that are its London headquarters. Nick Pollard, the astute head of Sky News, interviewed here last week, would be well advised to live dangerously and distance himself as far as possible from the Murdoch agenda. Greg Dyke was right: patriotism and journalism don't mix.

Sky News is a success. It employs some of the best broadcast journalists in the business. Its political editor, Adam Boulton, is admirably well informed and non-partisan. But it should be watchful of its reputation for truthfulness, which is any broadcaster's most treasured asset. It was because he cares about that reputation that Mr Pollard acted as he did in the tragic case of James Forlong, who killed himself after being forced to resign for falsifying a report about the war.

Sky's head of news should be equally concerned about his network's tendency to go to air with other, unverified reports. This is a spin-doctor's dream, allowing rumours and half-truths to march unchallenged through an open door. Caution and fact-checking are old-fashioned but necessary newsroom virtues. By rediscovering them, Sky can save itself from becoming known as the network that is "never wrong for long".

In times of crisis, of war and terrorism, the rolling-news channels have special responsibilities as the primary source of news for millions of people. They are defined by F-words. They aim to be first and fastest with the news. Their nature, too often, is to be feverish, frenzied, frantic, frail, false and fallible.

This is not a plea for censorship but for a return to first principles. The broadcasters should report what they know rather than what they guess. They should deliver bad news with less gusto and relish. They should leave the flag-waving to others. That was what broadcasting used to do before terrorism unhinged it. The test of excellence is not "We got it first!" but "We got it right!".

'Through Gates of Fire', by Martin Bell, is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, priced £16.99