By Cox, David
New Statesman (1996) , Vol. 131, No. 4617
TV executives, brought up on written culture, lack faith in the capacity of a visual medium to make sense of the news. Yet "ordinary people" constantly urge their betters to raise their sights.
The news is bad. TV bulletins are watched less and less, and current affairs shows are watched less still. Newspapers are losing both circulation and public trust. Meanwhile, the nature of the news itself has changed. Nowadays, "if it bleeds, it leads", while outside times of crisis, the rest of the running order is in thrall to celebrity, lifestyle and sensation. Increasingly, news aims to shock, amuse or reassure, rather than inform. Coverage of serious topics, in the Guardian as much as the Sun, is largely calculated to reinforce prejudice rather than enlighten. As a result, such news as we consume keeps us less and less abreast of the public agenda.
Does it matter? Callow political advisers and well-fed lobbyists will tell you it doesn't. Leave people to enjoy the circuses they seem to prefer; affairs of state can be sorted out by those who understand them. Whether commendable or contemptible, this approach is no longer viable. The days when people were prepared to devolve authority to their betters have departed. Nowadays, we all want the say to which democracy entitles us, whether or not we know what we're talking about.
So popular understanding of public affairs matters. If citizens are poorly informed, government is left at the mercy of prejudice at worst, "commonsense" at best. And commonsense is not good enough, because the wisest course is often counter-intuitive. Equally, citizens need to appreciate the flaws in the government's schemes and comprehend alternatives to its proposals. How are these things to happen, if not through our news media?
It is easy to demand more responsibility from news providers. Unfortunately, readers, listeners and viewers prefer being entertained to being told about depressing and intractable public issues. Outlets at the mercy of market forces cannot buck consumer taste. Fortunately, unlike America and much of the rest of the world, Britain boasts information providers (in broadcasting if not in print) with other than simply commercial objectives. The BBC and Channel 4 exist solely to contribute to the public weal. Most of our other broadcasters are also required to provide socially useful output in return for their licences. What more important task could society require of the media under its sway than equipping citizens to perform their democratic duty?
As it happens, those responsible for the organisations involved are aware of the news crisis and keen to show that they are getting across it. This summer, the BBC conducted a farreaching review of its political output. It is making substantial changes, and the effects will shortly hit our screens. The Independent Television Commission and the Broadcasting Standards Commission, which regulate the rest of British television, have just published a head-scratching report advancing a ten-point action plan. A common theme unites these two initiatives -- the idea that news-based programming needs to be made more attractive.
The BBC is therefore axing On the Record and Despatch Box, programmes in which ageing male presenters address the Westminster agenda and interrogate politicians. Instead, programmes will involve ordinary people, report from places where they live and adopt the idiom of the young. The ITC/BSC report suggests that the impartiality rule, which now applies to all news broadcasters, should be withdrawn in atleast some cases. Viewers might then be attracted by the excitement of partisanship.
Popularisation may seem the obvious way forward. Up till now, however, it has put few more bums on seats, let alone enhanced public understanding. The audience for dumb-as-possible Tonight with Trevor McDonald averaged only 3. …