As long as it goes out live: Allison Pearson says the obsession with surface is damaging the best broadcast journalism in the world

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The Independent Online
ANYONE switching on BBC 2 late last Wednesday will have seen several pinstriped gents shunting each other about in dodgems at a funfair. A dream sequence from an old Reginald Perrin perhaps? No, Newsnight, the BBC's flagship current affairs programme. Back in the studio, Jeremy Paxman and his guests were caught up in major roadworks: winking hazard lights, candy-stripe barriers, Dayglo cones. Viewers who stayed tuned long enough will have discovered this was a debate on the future of transport. The rest will have gone to bed, safe in the knowledge it was a load of bollards.

The bollards weren't strictly necessary. Paxman could have outlined the main idea in a couple of elegant sentences: British drivers bumper to bumper on the road to environmental catastrophe while rival government departments enjoy head-on collisions. Instead, a neat image was inflated into a full-blown design initiative. What it cost the licence payer (actors, funfair hire, candyfloss all round) is anyone's guess; the value placed on the viewer's intelligence, though, is clear. It is all too easy to picture the meeting where some producer decided that transport was dull, not visual enough. 'What we need is a diversion - hey, let's do the roadworks right here]' The result added little to the debate on traffic, but it did draw attention to another state of emergency: the hazard warning lights are flashing all over television news.

In the scrum for readers and ratings, all media are busy blurring the line between information and entertainment. But television's offence is greater because its responsibility is more daunting: 80 per cent of Britons get most of their news from television. And, for most of those, seeing is believing.

A recent survey revealed that the public trusted television more than radio because if you can see the pictures then it must be true.

This impression of authority and reliability is reinforced by avuncular anchors and grandiose corporate identities. ITN's headquarters - the glass eyrie of a Bond villain bent on global domination - currently makes more guest appearances in its bulletins than all world leaders put together.

Meanwhile, the pounds 650,000 refit of the Nine O'Clock News created a studio featuring a perspex wall embossed with a swanky crest. The close-up on the crest at the start of every bulletin manages to suggest that what follows is some elevated public service with a royal seal of approval. But the wall is an illusion; a sliver of virtual reality. If viewers were ever allowed to get near enough they would see it had no substance whatsoever: another sleight of eye in the confidence trick that television news has to pull off every day to keep ahead of the competition from Ceefax, cable and satellite.

Television news has changed its tune since the night in 1954 when the disembodied voice of one Richard Baker intoned the headlines over still photographs on the first Nine O'Clock News. Perky signature music has gradually been replaced by booming, portentous orchestrations that strongly suggest Martyn Lewis is the missing Fifth Horseman of the Apocalypse. Even regional news, that clumsy country cousin, now boasts the kind of opening melody that usually heralds a declaration of martial law. The message comes over loud and clear: the world may be a mess but, boy, the guys telling you about it are in terrific shape] The Day Today, BBC 2's satirical show, brilliantly pinpointed the way in which the style of television news had not just triumphed over content; it had it by the throat. The inspiration was American, and our boys embraced it with unBritish zeal. ITN called in US consultants and, as one executive admitted, got taken over by the 'format police'. The strategy was more home news, less foreign, more live links and cosy chats between reporter and anchor. This last device is known in the trade as a Live Sandwich. Viewers who have to sit through an entire Tupperware box of them every evening might be forgiven for asking what happened to the filling. Who can forget the night when News at Ten's Trevor McDonald asked News at Ten's Alastair Stewart in Downing Street to interview News at Ten's Michael 'Mike' Brunson, also in Downing Street? This was presumably a Club Sandwich; it was certainly impossible to swallow.

It is easy to laugh at such idiot conventions and monstrous self-regard. But the obsession with surface is doing deep and permanent damage to the best broadcast journalism in the world. Just watch the news today and count the number of reporters who look like Sindy's boyfriend. With their heavy jaws and medium tans, the Bens and Toms could pass for celebrity hosts on any afternoon game show. Time was when foreign correspondents had faces that looked like relief maps of the countries they covered, etched with bitter experience. Now, your career's dead if you haven't made correspondent by 28.

And ITN sends a lad to Northern Ireland who looks younger than The Troubles.

I asked a senior BBC current affairs man who had just finished recruiting this year's graduate trainees if they were all good looking. He grinned and said, 'Funny, come to think of it they are. In fact, one or two are real stunners.' There will be no place in the new world of infotainment for people like the BBC's political correspondent, John Sergeant. After all, with his squashed cabbage face and sad rheumy eyes he is liable to give viewers the impression that they are not supposed to be enjoying themselves.

News is by its nature fractured and untidy, but infotainment - dubbed McNews by one media academic - has to look slickly packaged. This means fewer last-minute changes (News at Ten allegedly sets its running order at 6.10pm). Less new news, more old news. To assure the punters at home that we are being kept up to date, bulletins go big on live reports. It doesn't much matter where these come from; one reporter confessed on camera that he had just realised he was standing in the wrong 'bank' in Israel. Barclays Bank, West Bank, who cares as long as we're there in real time?

But the need to go live hampers the gathering of news. The satellite technology that should have liberated reporters to rootle around in odd corners of the global village has actually tied them tighter to base.

Correspondents are frequently told to stand next to their equipment and not move. The story is fed into their earpiece down the line from editors in London and they solemnly parrot it back to the anchor. One chap reporting on a conference in Madrid was asked by a newscaster how things were shaping up.

'How the f--- should I know?' said the reporter. 'I haven't been in there, have I?'

James Long, formerly the BBC's economics editor, says that the BBC no longer trusts the reporters at the sharp end. 'There is a great clutter of people back at base checking scripts, checking facts, feeding in ideas, wanting it done their way. As if by remote control.' We are probably not too many years away from the virtual-reality Martin Bell. A reporter who can handily be beamed to any exciting location at a few seconds' notice and won't complain about not getting to find anything out.

Confronted with the accusation that they are obsessed with ratings and that the quality of their service is declining, the newsmen grow puce with indignation and fall back on words like 'hugely popular'. But you only have to observe the rise of the human interest story and the decline of language in which it is described to know what they mean by popular and to worry about what they mean by news. Five years ago, you would not have heard Peter Sissons on the Nine O'Clock News refer to the Rachel Nickell case as 'this brutal murder' (not to be confused, presumably with the other kind of murder where the victim is offered a choice of weapon and a few kind words). Five years ago, you would not have had a camera at John Smith's funeral, never mind a pack of them greedily scanning the rows for the most distraught mourner. Five years ago, the teddy bears displayed at the funeral of a child killed by other children would not have been the subject of mawkish and macabre comment by newsreaders. Nor would the distress of his parents. The great gulping grief of James Bulger's parents was not news. But it was great television.

Allison Pearson's 'J'Accuse the News' is on Channel 4 on Tuesday at 9pm.

(Photograph omitted)