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Please adjust your mind set: It may look like the news but it's just hi-tech wizardry. These days parody is as real as TV fact

THREE bodies lie in the street, shot by police in pursuit of an IRA 'dog bomb'. 'Being old,' says the voice-over as the camera pans across the corpses, 'they would have died soon anyway.' The Sinn Fein spokesman, when questioned about the outrage, is obliged to take large gulps of helium to make his voice sound funny and 'subtract from the credibility of his statement'. Meanwhile, US reporter Barbara Wintergreen enthuses about a new disc-shaped plastic foetus that provides all the joy of pregnancy without the fuss of a baby; and, finally, there is an international ban on the hunting of waves.

'Those,' says the newscaster as tonight's show begins, 'are the headlines. God, I wish they weren't'

These are fragments from tonight's edition of The Day Today (BBC 2, 9pm), a spoof news show. Such lampoons have been done before - Not the Nine O'Clock News, KYTV - but The Day Today is different. In part, this is simply because it is the best: ruthless, witty, deliriously surreal and breathtakingly well observed. After watching a couple of shows, the real television news becomes almost incomprehensible, its content buried under your sudden awareness of all the absurd mannerisms and grotesque posturing.

But the real reason this show is so good is its timing. Its writers and producer have spotted something that has happened so quietly, so gradually, so subliminally that, without The Day Today, we might all have missed it. For the fact is that television news has gone quite mad.

The Day Today provides a brilliant and succinct catalogue of the symptoms of this madness. There is the jolting, pounding music signalling that here is something significant, ominous; there is the weird, specialised language full of redundant cliches and uncontrolled, unacknowledged editorialising; there are the depressing computer graphics; there are the surreal insert shots - MPs pretending to ignore a camera crew as they walk across Westminster Green with a curious, stiff gait as if they had just had an enema and can't find a nurse.

I could go on. The show is replete with hundreds of the bizarre and frequently deranged presentational conventions that now infest television news. If you are tempted to feel that this is a little over the top, watch the real thing: ITN's obsession with its new building designed by Sir Norman Foster, demonstrated by vertiginous shots across the atrium and the new technique of bringing people in to be interviewed outside its marble, glass and steel. Or there is the BBC's frightening computer-generated wall of thick glass bisecting the studio and bearing the corporation's crest. And, of course, with CNN and Sky News, the whole thing takes off into the frenzied realms of media craziness.

The primary message of all this is clear: television news has become fantastically mannered and stylised. It is encrusted with gesture and posture, most of which is intended to reinforce - though in reality it subverts - its aspiration to cool objectivity and authority. Above all, it now feels the need to sell itself as a distinctive entity over and above the material it is intending to convey. 'The Day Today,' as the spoof slogan goes, 'because fact into doubt won't go.'

There are many possible explanations for this phenomenon. American television news is the main influence. Not long ago ITN brought in American news consultants in an attempt to catch the style. There are many signs of their work, the most irritating being the now-celebrated redundant Christian-name syndrome. 'Jim, what's the news in Sarajevo?' 'Bob, the news in Sarajevo is . . .'

But the wider impact of the American influence is the intrusion of a colossal, portentous self-consciousness combined with an almost giggly intimacy. The portentousness stems from the conviction that big events should be communicated in a manner that repeatedly drives home the fact that they are, indeed, big.

American news used to do this with a crushing, fireside-chat paternalism: things are bad, but wise, competent people are here to help. The paternalism has gone, replaced by an East Coast liberal, can-do expertise and the shirt-sleeved, get- killed-on-camera style of CNN.

The intimacy is seen in the cultivation of 'chemistry' in man- woman presenter teams - Sky is the most embarrassing offender here - and by the general pressure on the audience to be interested in the personalities of the newscasters. The reason for this, of course, is that the authority and conviction of the whole show tends to be carried by the anchor man or woman; the more real and trustworthy they appear to be, the more seriously we shall take what they are saying.

And it is this whole question of how you cultivate and advertise seriousness in the modern world that lies behind the current wave of television news affectation. Television companies overwhelmingly regard news as the most solidly virtuous and significant part of their output.

During last year's controversy over whether News at Ten should be moved to a different time slot, Sir David Nicholas, the former ITN editor and chairman, said the move would represent 'the end of serious commercial television'; and when he responded to Martyn Lewis's campaign for more good news, he said: 'Hard news is something that is exceptional, and by its nature hard news is not good news.' And Peter Sissons said: 'If television news is to make people feel better, we are into a kind of social engineering, and this is the thin end of a very dangerous wedge.'

Underlying all these remarks is the puritanical newsman's credo that the news may be difficult and unpleasant, but, like medicine, it has to be taken. Furthermore, there is the assumption that whatever agenda ITN or BBC alights upon is unquestionably the real, the natural, the truthful agenda. The fact that it is a carefully contrived construction cannot be acknowledged because that might undermine the authoritative seriousness of the entire enterprise.

The problem for this puritanism is that the cult of seriousness has - as The Day Today has so brilliantly spotted - become a style in itself, a manner that increasingly stands between the world and the viewer. Lewis was right to notice that something odd was happening to television news, but wrong to attribute the failing to content. In reality there has been an extraordinary blossoming of technical and presentational style, driven by a highly competitive market that demands the maximum impression of significance and sensation.

Competition is almost certainly the key to all this. The internationalisation of television and all the parallel developments in electronic networking mean that the basic stuff of news is easily available 24 hours a day. If you simply want to know what's going on out of curiosity or for practical reasons, it is certainly easier to call up Ceefax, and soon it will be easier to call up the unadulterated facts on a computer bulletin system than wait for a television news show. The transmission of raw data is what the modern world does best.

This puts pressure on all news media - but most of all on television - to signal their difference, to cultivate their edited and entertaining qualities. However solemnly CNN may sell itself, the truth is that reporters dodging flak in hotel rooms is all about entertainment - about the physically intimate buzz that videotape can provide - which newsprint or computer text cannot quite so easily manage. And, of course, the same goes for all the mad paraphernalia of studio presentation and the crazily overstated, repetitive and frequently meaningless language employed by presenters and reporters.

Television executives will reply that newspapers are much worse offenders. In a crude sense this is true. But newspapers are entirely different simply because the final editing is done by the readers. They can choose or reject from an immense range of material. There is no choice on a television show, and that, combined with the fact that most people now regard television as their primary news source, means that the selling and packaging of television news is, in reality, the selling and packaging of what will at once become the popular understanding of what the world is really like.

This may not matter. News has always been an arbitrary business. Almost all its apparent importance on the day fades quickly, and few stories can really be said to change people's lives or minds. But it is important to know that it is happening; to know that our passions and concerns are increasingly being aroused more by style than by content; to know that, sub specie aeternitatis, it really is not so amazing that, as The Day Today so authoritatively reported, a headmaster used a large- faced boy as a satellite dish.