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The new definition of news

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Do you really want to know what is going on in the world? Can you really be bothered? Isn't there too much news already? The proposed revamping of Channel 4 news brought on, or so it has been said, by the success of Channel 5 news, once again begs the question of what makes good news. There is a move right across the media towards making the news more fun, more sexy, more entertaining, as though there is an implicit understanding that news on its own is just too straight, too dull and too boring to attract those peculiar minorities, women and young people.

If the news agenda is being shifted towards this new market then the news itself will have to change. Sure things will still happen, but there is a re-ordering of priorities about what is important. This newspaper is part of that change. Yet such changes do not come easy to news organisations in which the traditional ways of dividing up the news are firmly in place.

Print journalism has become far more "magaziney", more feature- and commentary- led on the basis that most people get their news from radio and television. The idea is that people have already received the primary information about what is going on, and, instead of needing more repetition of facts, they instead need a way of understanding, of processing all this information.

Increasingly, however, there are worries about the presentation. Channel 4's in-depth coverage, centred on sexy but serious Jon Snow, is to be tarted up. Channel 5 news, with its more informal approach pioneered by Kirsty Young, is seen as a direct challenge to the old way of doing things - big brains behind big desks combined with reports that have been prepared earlier.

Kirsty perches on desks in her natty trouser suits and chats her way through the stories of the day. Fans say it's fresh, critics say that it's lightweight with far too many consumer stories. Anyway, aren't we in danger of replicating the American obsession with anchor men/women when what becomes important is the person reading the news rather than the news itself? Cosy Trevor Macdonald versus edgy Jeremy Paxman. Deeply concerned Michael Buerk versus trendy biker Jon Snow. Shallow Kirsty Young versus in-depth Wark. You choose your news according to their view of who gives it you. This is a superficial way of looking at it: style becomes more important than content and therefore content inevitably suffers. This is the ongoing Americanisation or tabloidisation of all media that produces cheap and tacky infotainment. This is the supposed dumbing down that gets everyone so excited.

Those currently complaining about British children watching cartoons like The Simpsons and Rugrats have obviously never sat down and watched these programmes, which are actually biting social commentaries, far less dumb than much home-grown product aimed at kids.

Questioning what news values are appropriate for the Nineties seems to me a good move and not one that automatically leads to a less intelligent approach. What appears to be happening is a move away from the assumed dominance of Westminster. Newsnight has a new Friday night format which tries to be more cuddly, mainly by asserting itself - as Paxman sneered - a "politician-free zone". The reverence that some have for the Today programme, which so much of the time consists of a small club of politicians and journalists talking to each other, is also now due for a shake-up.

If people are bored to tears by politicians then partly this is the result of political news management. Spinning, image consultancy, media training has not made politicians more endearing to the public, it has helped make them duller than ever. All spontaneity, honesty and humanity appears air- brushed out of them. We know what they are going to say, so why should we waste our time on those who have been taught how not to answer questions? Why should it be the job of news organisations to make these people seem more interesting than they actually are?

There is also some groping towards the notion that extra- parliamentary politics are important.

The grip of Westminster on the public imagination is less tight for a whole number of reasons. There is a sense of the limited power of elected politicians, as well the knowledge that it is now possible to live in a political culture that has nothing to do with political parties.

The media has been slow to cotton on to the new movements, from road protesters to sophisticated consumer boycotts, because its machinery is not able to fit these vague groupings into the established categories. The lines between hard news and soft news have fallen away. The divisions between social affairs, home news, features and human interest stories are less easy to define.

The old confidence about what is significant in the world, which many would describe as arrogance, has ebbed away. The paternalistic attitude that was once sure that the news would be good for us, educate us, even if we had to struggle through it, has gone. Some would argue that the biggest losers in all of this have been the foreign and investigative reporters whose work is considered far too expensive. Who cares about what's going on in Algeria when you can have another Spice Girls story? These heroes of the news industry remain sacrosanct. They are intrepid and therefore must never be criticised. Why not? Perhaps all news has to be presented differently.

It's far too lazy simply to blame the tabloids for all these changes. Tabloids may sell themselves primarily as entertainment, and are bought on that basis, but it was their investigations of the Royal Family that in their own way brought the monarchy into crisis. The investigative teams of the broadsheets did not do this, or even try.

The success of Channel 5 news also points to a more localised news media. This, in fact, is the situation in America, where much news is multi-local rather than national - let alone international. Consumer stories, human interest stories, quirky stories, do attract audiences. The big stories lately, whether Diana or Louise Woodward, are undoubtedly human interest stories and no less important for that.

The change in both style and content of the news is itself a consumer story - it is consumer driven. Someone has to read or listen to all this damn stuff or there is no point in doing it. The world view of the middle- aged, middle-class male is being challenged by those who do not want to be patronised or told what is really meaningful. We can make our own minds up. In many ways we already have. All that is happening is that those who imagine that they are entrusted to organise the world are now struggling to catch up with the way the world chooses to organise itself. Why is that such bad news?

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