I don’t know what was more infuriating about this evening’s BBC News, the presentation or the stories themselves.
It kicked off with a long exposé about Bulgarian baby-selling, complete with film from hidden cameras, dramatic-sounding appointments late at night, and an East European villain from Central Casting. The story was run by an intelligent-sounding, attractive-looking female reporter on, I would guess, her first big break, who spoke proper English and walked well that narrow line between sober journalism and breathless excitement.
The newscaster, Dermot somebody, clearly thought he was somebody, adding his stern visage and heavy moralistic adjectives and adverbs to make it clear that he wasn’t just a reader of bulletins but a man with opinions.
The news element in this could have been disposed of in 30 seconds. It was competently done, and not unimportant – but it was not news. It was investigative journalism, put together some time ago and held over to make a splash on the first available quiet night.
The other production oddity came with the local weather. They seem to think that everyone has widescreen televisions – that is the only possible explanation for the fact that the weather girl kept bobbing on and off the left-hand side of the screen as if slightly embarrassed to be there.
The other peculiarities lay in some of the stories. We were taken to Gloucester and told that vandals were damaging water bowsers, or leaving the taps on and wasting water. My assumption was that the police were too stretched on other vital civil defence duties – until we were shown footage of fully-kitted policemen handing out water bottles to passing motorists. Why on earth do you need a policeman to do that? Plod could have been on patrol to catch the vandals and haul them off to the magistrates, and here he was, in force, distributing plastic bottles.
The other thought which crossed my mind will doubtless be condemned by the thought-police of the equalities industry – but are there any white people in Gloucester? Almost the only ones we saw were journalists or policemen.
On to Wales, where a religious sect was forced to give up Shambo the sacred bull for slaughter after a prolonged battle through the courts. A council paper-shuffler turned up to enforce the court’s order – but had forgotten to bring the right piece of paper to shuffle and had to go away again to get it.
Enough policemen to re-enact the battle of Orgreave Colliery were paraded in their riot kit and sent (“Quick March”) to do battle with the sect’s members. These were mainly whites made up as Tibetans, eloquent, gentle and intelligent at this, the end of their battle to be left alone by plodding authority. The garlanded Shambo was herded into a wagon by the uniformed policemen and driven away. It was as if the casts of The Pirates of Penzance, The King and I, and All Creatures Great and Small had treble-booked the same venue.
Apart from the water shortage in Gloucester, the floods got barely a mention on the national news. A new arrival in the country would not know that half the south of England is still under water. We had to wait for the local Oxford news for pictures of people mopping up and showing us round their devastated homes.
The Environment Secretary, Hilary Benn, ludicrous in his red life jacket, talked earnestly to a resident and journalists. At least he came, and got his feet wet. Any amusement came from watching the leaders of the City Council and the County Council each trying to make sure that they got more camera time than the other.
The producers of a half-hour television news programme clearly do have a problem. They must compete with internet news, radio and the rolling news channels and must justify somehow the substantial costs of staff and equipment needed to bring pictures instantly from all over the World.
Television news cannot be beaten for some things – I watched the whole Twin Towers disaster from minutes after the first plane hit. No other medium could deliver the immediacy which came from live television coverage.
The newspapers, as well as the Internet, give us comment and opinion which we can take at any speed we like, or ignore if we choose to. Television news must fill that 30 minutes every day, and must do it with moving footage if it is to differentiate itself from the other sources and keep our attention.
The departure of Tony Blair brings the end of the story-a-day-from-Westminster. We still get non-stories pouring out of New Labour – 100 written statements rushed out just before the summer recess, for example, timed to ensure that ministers do not get questioned about them. But they are deliberately dull, and the cameras keep away, just as Gordon Brown intends, so that he can save himself for the big occasions.
I do not purport to supply an answer, but I do know that long and worthy reports of undercover investigations into the sale of Bulgarian babies is not the way to keep, still less bring back, an audience for television news.