Terence Blacker: Just a minute: do we need all this news?

It has been as if, just for a day, a great fog of mostly useless information has been lifted
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The Independent Online

Something odd is happening when the voice of Nicholas Parsons actually makes one want to yelp with pleasure. It was Monday morning, rather early, and the radio was droning away in the background.

Something odd is happening when the voice of Nicholas Parsons actually makes one want to yelp with pleasure. It was Monday morning, rather early, and the radio was droning away in the background.

Normally at this time the Today programme would be doing its work, silting up the brain with opinions, arguments, claim and refutations. Instead, startlingly, the cheery voice of Britain's most annoying quizmaster shattered the morning calm. What the hell was going on?

As I dived across the kitchen to hit the "off" button, I realised what had happened. It was strike day at the BBC. Hurrah! I imagined all over the country, people sitting down to breakfast in contented silence, feeling inexplicably liberated.

There will be huffing and puffing from the usual quarters about the BBC's day of action, and talk of a return to the bad old days of industrial unrest of the 1970s. But, for the more old-fashioned and communitarian of us, the fact that journalists and technicians have been prepared to protest against the loss of 4,000 jobs and a fundamental reduction in what the corporation does is reassuring.

Those high-profile journalists who have refused to cross the picket-line - Comrades Humphrys, Vine, Paxman, Wark and even that reluctant activist Brother Marr - deserve particular praise, while those who unfortunately have to be described as "scabs" - Chris Moyles, Terry Wogan, Sarah Kennedy - have earned themselves a big, fat raspberry for putting self before solidarity.

Another startling side-effect has attended the 24-hour strike. It has been as if, just for a day, a great fog of mostly useless information has been lifted. There has been a holiday from news, from the millions of words that crowd in on us, demanding thought and yet somehow making it more difficult.

Such is our addiction to the very latest developments from the newsroom that it is only when, for example, listeners to the Today programme are suddenly forced to do cold turkey with an old episode of Just a Minute that a surprising truth becomes evident.

News, and the various types of hot air that keep it airborne, is very often a waste of time. Stories that, day after day, are conveyed with such urgency are frequently the work of the weavers and spinners of public life, or of some cynical PR type operating on the fringes of the celebrity circuit. They clutter the brain, making us feel dazed, cynical, under-informed or indifferent.

Often, in fact, news is not news at all. A couple of days before its strike, the BBC led its bulletins throughout the day with the discovery by one of their own surveys that the majority of local Conservative Party chairmen supported a change in the rules for electing a new party leader.

We knew that, or we could have guessed it. At best, it was a minor story, an excuse for another peep at the plight of the poor old Tories, but there it was, presented as the most significant event of the day.

Meanwhile, over on ITV, the national and international news had another lead headline: a lump had been found in the breast of an Australian pop singer. Sad as this was, it was a crisis in Kylie Minogue's life but not in that of the world. Indeed, students of the way fame and the media interact in the 21st century could do worse than to anatomise the coverage of Kylie's anatomy from wet-lipped ogling at what the BBC described as "arguably the world's most famous behind" to today's sombre, concerned speculation about the state of her breasts.

There has ceased to be any meaningful distinction between news and entertainment, particularly on days when nothing much has happened. Pointless surveys are analysed. The uninteresting views of uninformed members of the public solicited. Publicity-crazed pundits are wheeled into the studio to say nothing in particular and at great length.

A never-ending procession of pretty-faced actors and models on the fringe of the entertainment business contribute to the process with "news" of their relationships, addictions, opinions, triumphs and failures.

The more bloated we become, the sharper our hunger for news pap, minute by minute, on the radio, TV, on the internet, on ceefax, on mobile phone. Often what is presented as news has not actually happened - the planted rumour, the speech that has yet to be delivered is deemed to be as real as any event that has actually taken place.

Somehow it is no surprise that the forthcoming British Lions tour will have its own media consultant in the redoubtable figure of Alastair Campbell. The words surrounding the sporting action apparently now need as much tactical know-how as anything that may take place on the pitch.

While controlling those players who are doubling as media correspondents, Campbell will of course be adding to the news himself. This weekend, hanging out with the Lions, he encountered the Manchester United football team before their FA Cup final and has reported that "as the players strolled around the hotel, they had the word 'focus' stamped all over them."

What did that mean? That they looked like small Ford family saloons? Was that why they lost? Analysis of this and much else might have appeared on the BBC but has been lost forever on a magic Monday of relative silence, peace and thought.

Terblacker@aol.com

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