Leading Article: Too many bullets in the bulletins

Click to follow
The Independent Online
LAST WEEK, we devoted almost the whole of our front page, as well as pages two and three, to the huge IRA bomb in the City of London. It never occurred to us that we should do anything else - lighter, cheerier stories, such as the Royal Family's plans for restoring Windsor Castle, were moved to what journalists call 'the back of the book'. Every other national Sunday newspaper and every radio and television bulletin made the same news judgement. Nobody pretends that they were thus providing a fair and balanced picture of British life last weekend. The reality was that millions of people rose peacefully from their beds and spent the day unbombed, unburgled and unmugged. But it is not the function of newspapers to furnish a complete account of the nation's daily routine - their job is to publish news, defined by dictionaries as 'new or interesting information, fresh events'. For similar reasons, our main stories today highlight death and destruction.

All this would be accepted both by Martyn Lewis, the BBC news presenter (whom we profile opposite), and by Simon Jenkins, the Times columnist. Both, nevertheless, challenged conventional news agendas last week. Mr Lewis, in speeches in the United States, argued that 'good news' stories are too often given low priority on television. Mr Jenkins wrote that terrorists plant bombs because they want publicity and that we should exercise self-restraint in giving it. Such thoughts deserve more serious consideration than Jeremy Paxman's dismissive suggestion that perhaps Mr Lewis should apply for the editorship of a paper in the Socialist Republic of Burma. Senior journalists and television producers are apt to believe that proper, grown- up (and, usually, male) reporters should be concerned only with 'hard' news, comprising war, disaster and crime, or with exposure under the headings of 'we name the guilty men' and 'arrow points to the defective part'. The rest of human life is for women and boys. Judging by newspaper correspondence columns, however, there is wide public sympathy for Mr Lewis. The professionals, instead of mocking, should be worried that they are so out of touch with readers and viewers. (And it should be made clear that this newspaper does not consider itself entirely innocent of that or any other charge).

THE POINT is not that journalists should set out to be 'positive' rather than 'negative' - this is indeed the language of the totalitarian state and, ultimately, it is counter-

productive. We know this not just from Eastern Europe, but from our own back yard. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, the BBC deliberately played down the negative aspects of community relations in Northern Ireland, ignoring, for example, discrimination in housing and employment; its function, it thought, was to create a consensus, to build bridges. A 'negative' report by Alan Whicker in 1958 created such a storm that London-based documentary programmes virtually ignored the province for years afterwards. The suppression of grievance meant that sectarian conflict, when it came, was all the more violent and it caught politicians and public completely unprepared.

But journalists need to re-think their approach to news in two ways. First, they need a wider definition of what is important and interesting. New developments in science, medicine, industry, commerce and the arts, for example, can affect the lives of millions: in any history of the 20th century the development of penicillin or the growth of the supermarket is just as important as war, riot and murder, if not more so. Here, newspapers do a better job than television. New fossil evidence on evolution can make the front page of the Independent, as it did on Friday; television is more likely to ghettoise such subjects in specialist programmes or, at best, to dispose of them in a few seconds towards the end of the main news bulletins. This is largely because television is so picture-oriented and pictures of famine and war are far more dramatic than pictures of fossils. But television producers should grasp that an excess of filmed misery eventually numbs the viewer, forfeiting both interest and sympathy.

Second, the media should take more trouble to put news in perspective. This was Mr Jenkins's complaint about the IRA bomb. Assiduous in their search for angles and significance, television and newspapers suggested that bankers would be frightened away from London and the City thus ruined. Yet, argues Mr Jenkins, 'on any available measure, London is one of Europe's safest cities in which to work'. On this particular point he may be wrong - banks in Frankfurt, for example, are not likely to face multi-million-pound bills for repair. Nevertheless, the wider argument holds. Journalists, always sceptical about good news (is the economy really picking up?), are remarkably credulous about bad news. Take the claim made, quite frequently, that several million adult Britons are illiterate. Such figures are completely bogus; they are based on surveys of people who claim they have 'difficulties' with reading and writing. By this, people may mean - and frequently do mean - that they would like to express themselves more clearly. Take, too, the television image of Africa: a continent of almost unrelieved misery and hopelessness, full of starving children. How often are we reminded that, even in the most stricken countries, many more children survive early infancy than did, say, 25 years ago?

The argument is not that terrible events should remain uncovered, nor even that the coverage should be greatly reduced. It is only that we should retain a sense of proportion. Pictures of slaughter in Bosnia or misery in Africa may stir the conscience. But, removed from proper understanding of how and why these things happen, they can easily become an exercise in voyeurism, a luxury for the citizens of more stable and prosperous societies. And, in the end, we become blase. We see a succession of scandals, a succession of injustices, a succession of emaciated bodies. One seems much like another. We shrug our shoulders and settle down to the next. If we had more of Mr Lewis's good news, we might take more note of the bad.

Comments