REVIEW : Drop the dead donkey, we'll run with the cheese

Thomas Sutcliffe
Sunday 23 October 2011 00:25

It seems almost inconceivable that Channel 4 is going to give us six episodes of Deadline, a documentary series which goes behind the scenes at Calendar, Yorkshire Television's regional news programme. A one-off you can understand. Even on paper the film promises an engaging blend of Victoria Wood comedy and the occasional insight into the clumsy mechanics of journalism. But six hours at the bottom of the news barrel? Surely not? The first episode didn't do much to change your mind about this but there was a consolation. It suggested that the series will, at least, be too much of a good thing.

The series is one of the central pillars of "Whose News?", a season of programmes examining the control and dissemination of television news. With that in mind it might seem perverse to ignore the great national juggernauts in favour of the little local runabout. Certainly some of the editorial issues raised are on a decidedly modest scale. "A new cheese is being launched in Yorkshire," confided the producer as he prepared for the evening broadcast. "The promoters have brought Anneka Rice along because they think that will get it publicity. But, to my mind, I'd do the story whether or not Anneka Rice was there." There's fearless journalistic integrity for you - simple PR stunts weren't going to distract him from his determination to get a simple PR stunt on air. A giant wedge of the new cheese duly made its appearance in the studio, perched on a table where it could provide the presenters with the opportunity for some perky badinage.

They prefer it, naturally, if the product talks back - later in the programme Lynne Perrie came in to plug her book, a tell-all account of Coronation Street stardom. She was interviewed by Richard Whiteley, probably the most bashful presenter on television. On Countdown, the afternoon quiz show, his demeanour is strangely like that of a man who has missed the beginning of a joke and suspects nervously that it might be about him - here he seemed a little more relaxed, the master of casual couch talk.

Elsewhere, though, the comedy was a little darker and the PR more dubious. The coverage of the disappearance of Lindsay Rimer, a Hebden Bridge schoolgirl, revealed what a ceremonial affair television news can be. The reporting- team responsible went through the child abduction equivalent of the stations of the cross: interview with missing girl's father ("an emotional appeal" according to the hallowed clich, despite the fact that the man's half- smiling appearance rapidly became a news story in itself), the dragging of the local canal, comments from the headmaster (obligingly reconstructing his appeal to pupils to come forward with information). The result was closer to a town pageant than discovered truth, a ritual in which all involved knew their parts.

This was even more explicit when a camera-crew accompanied the police on a "dawn-raid" to arrest suspected football hooligans. Would the reporters like the man's head covered, asked an officer deferentially? They would, it seemed. The arrested man emerged underneath a shell-suit, the only loser in a tidy trade-off of publicity and filled airtime. Back at the nick, the reporter felt confident enough to give directions: "Can you mock us something up? Saying `Well done, a very successful operation', something like that?" The officer was a pro. They got it on the first take.

Back on the missing girl story, they had got round to the reconstruction of the last walk, a bizarre nocturnal parade of cameramen and photographers. It would have jogged memories if she'd been abducted by 17 members of the press but otherwise it was just the next piece in the news jigsaw - it couldn't take any other shape or it wouldn't have fitted in place.

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