The news on television presents its viewers with a smaller world

Human interest stories are of interest to David Aaronovitch too, but not to the exclusion of analysis and comment
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The Independent Online
ONE by one the ancient bastions fall. Last week it was the flag on Buckingham Palace, and yesterday it became common knowledge that ITN's News At Ten really would soon be shunted back to 11pm. This change - attempted a couple of years back and frustrated by the personal intervention of John Major - will apparently succeed the second time around because, as a senior ITV source said, "We will explain to the politicians why the move will make news on ITV even stronger." I look forward to such an explanation, which sounds as improbable and self-serving as a 70-year-old man's attempted seduction of a 20-year-old model on the basis of her being able to benefit from his long amatory experience.

No, the news on ITV will profit to this extent alone: at 11pm it will no longer have to worry about catering for such a large and diverse audience as the one it struggled to inform at 10; because they won't be there, as sure as eggs is eggs. The true motive is to increase audiences earlier on ITV, in particular by allowing adult programmes to be shown uninterrupted (except, of course, by tampon and pet food ads) in the post-watershed slot between 9 and 11. Mandy Pooler, managing director of the leading media buyers Mindshare, gave the game away by telling the Guardian that, "We believe ITV can build audiences by moving the news. There is unilateral (sic) support for this in the industry."

So what? Who cares if they do move the bloody thing? Well, a year or so ago I thought I didn't give two hoots, but I've changed my mind. This is partly due to reading an article in this week's New Yorker in which the American writer David Remnick lamented the loss of good TV news is the US. They get ITN over there on cable channels, and Remnick observed that "To watch, say, the ITN evening news in Britain, is to get a glimpse of the greater world ... places that are nearly invisible to an American viewer. Moreover in Europe, from London to Moscow the evening news is broadcast in the evening, at 8 or 9, when working people can actually watch it."

But the real reason for my change of heart has been the slowly growing realisation, prompted by the sight of a new government wrestling with exceptionally difficult problems, and by the paucity of intelligent coverage of the issues, of how little good journalism there is in our country, and how we do not value what there is.

When I first joined London Weekend TV's cerebral current affairs show Weekend World in 1982, ITV and BBC news and current affairs people were the pampered elite of the broadcasting organisations. They were clever, arrogant, noisy, well-paid and confident. Pleasing the audience, insofar as it as thought about at all, was clearly secondary to presenting what the journalists thought were important stories or (more rarely) analyses on screen. Since that time, however a long and (I believe) increasingly corrosive debate has gone on about how to make current affairs more palatable to a larger audience.

We know the drivers for this debate: hugely increased competition, a resulting battle for ratings, pressure from advertisers and the need for the BBC to maintain the legitimacy of the licence fee. So, over the years a thousand consultancies have quizzed a zillion focus groups. In previous capacities, I was present on several occasions when the gloomy results were discussed, and the pressure was always in one direction. Viewers respected authority and balance, but what they really, really lusted after was relevance. They wanted (we were told) to see their own lives reflected in the stories. And they wanted good, gripping stories at that. Or, as the "BBC News Programme Strategy Review" reported last autumn: "They like strong evidence - clearly presented, human examples or first-hand experience." As in shows like Channel 4's Cutting Edge documentary series, apparently. "How do we ensure," the Review document asked, "that we offer programmes which the market alone would never make YET [BBC emphasis] also remain in touch with the broadest of audiences?"

Yes, indeed. How do you ensure that? TV at the moment is awash with documentary series: Cutting This, Modern That, Inside The Other. The best of them are witty, revealing and provocative. But they are what they are, authored snapshots - and that is emphatically not current affairs. They may well tell intriguing human tales, taking you inside other peoples' lives, but they do not tell you how much of something is happening, why it is happening, how it might be prevented from happening and what the consequences of such prevention might be. That is not their job.

Meanwhile the programmes that might tell you this are being marginalised, denuded of resources and confidence, ignored or gradually forced to adopt a more popular agenda. Many have tried to ensure that they tell their stories better, more stylishly, only to discover that it has not been good enough.

BBC 1, for instance, now transmits only one current affairs show in its 7 to 10 pm prime time schedule. Called Here and Now, and scheduled opposite Coronation Street, this week's edition dealt with the pressures of schoolboy footballers and conmen stealing family heirlooms. The flagship, Panorama, moved last year from 9.30 to 10pm and lost over 20 per cent of its audience. It now follows Pleasure Beach, yet another prime time docusoap. On ITV we can expect World In Action to disappear soon, and to be replaced by something in which - I will take a bet - "human interest" stories are to the fore.

Now, I just love human stories. I adore seeing real-life marital break- up, psychotic neighbours, sociopathic drivers, vexed chefs and harassed coppers. But what happens when - as was recently the case - war seems imminent? Was it really good enough to leave it all to Newsnight to analyse what was happening, and what the options were?

Look at this week's Radio Times for an illustration of what I mean. There were several programmes about childcare on the BBC this week. One (made by my partner, as it happens) was an examination of the quality of childcare in Britain. The others were: "Four couples tell the true story of shopping, sleepless nights and lack of sex" and "Four women in their mid-thirties (two of them high-fliers) are expecting a baby." Guess which two the Radio Times highlighted in its Choice column.

So it's time for the pendulum to swing the other way. We need a tad less lifestyle stuff, a teeny shift from the undoubted pleasures of voyeurism, a soupcon less observation, and a bit more robust, lucid, intelligent, analytical, honest, confident and well-resourced news and current affairs in our prime time TV schedules. Or do we want the world to become "nearly invisible" to the British people too?

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