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How the News: Conquered the World

Simon Pitt | News | Saturday 13th March 2010

Those are the headlines. Happy, now?
Christopher Morris, The Day Today, Episode 5

In 1726 Daniel Defoe made a list of everything that could be depended on. The list contained two items: death and taxes. If he were alive today, he would probably add one more thing to that list: news.

Over the last twenty years, news has gone from a stuffy mumble by some suited boring-face at 6PM and then again at 10, to an almost continuous outpouring of tasteless entertainment, stupefying graphics and uninformative commentary.

You can even choose between which of the 24 hour rolling news services you want to watch: ITN, BBC News 24, Sky News, or a variety of other biases. On the radio, there is news on Radio 4 every hour, as well as 5Live, and if that wasn't enough the World Service has gradually without our knowledge, turned into BBC News 24: Radio.

I don't know why they even bother with schedules anymore, they might as well, just scrawl "news" in really big letters over everything with a crayon, because that's what you're going to get if you tune in.

Over, the last decade the World Service Drama budget has dropped from over a million a year to barely enough to pay for Mark Thompson's parking tickets. Now, most of the money going to the World Service goes on news.

If you've ever phoned the BBC and been put on hold you'll notice something. The music they play to you is startlingly similar to the BBC News theme tune.

New staff at the BBC are herded onto the suprisingly enjoyable Upfront training course. How do they begin the course? By playing the full opening titles to the news, of course. For those at the top, the BBC is BBC News. Everything else is so much frippery that they just have to have to stop people moaning. If they had it their way, the BBC would probably just be news.

So, how and why did news take over the world, and how come we let it?

Since Radio 4 first came into existance, its controllers have argued about how much news should be on it. In fact, looking back on events now, it seems inevitable that rolling news would, one day, become a reality. It all started, though, with Saddam Hussein.

On the 16th March 1991, the BBC split Radio 4 between the crappy Long Wave signal and the wonderfully stereo Frequency Modulated (FM) signal. Long Wave, with its poor, mono crackle, continued to broadcast the standard programmes, while FM began to broadcast round the clock coverage of the first Iraq War. The new "station" was affectionately known as Scud FM. Of course, regular Radio 4 listeners were annoyed that they had to listen to The Archers in mono, and so once the coalition had finished blowing stuff up, Radio 4 returned to normal.

However, a line had been crossed, and the public now wanted a rolling news network. This was despite the fact that much of the actual content on Scud FM was simply repeats of interviews that had happened just ten minutes earlier. An insurmountable problem with rolling news is that you have to fill all that time with something, regardless of whether there is any new information or not.

Peter, you've added nothing.
Christopher Morris, The Day Today, DVD Extra

In 1994, BBC Radio 5 Live was launched, a rolling news radio station, and three years later BBC News 24 emerged in a flurry of red globes and 3D UK graphics onto our screens (but only if we had a freeview box).

Later that year, BBC News Online launched. In 2003, it was re-branded and redesigned to appear more similar to BBC TV News, and now, around 10 years later, it receives over 14 million views a week, making it the most popular BBC site, and one of the most popular websites in the UK.

Tuning into the news can be like stumbling across episode 908 of the world's most complicated soap opera; a soap with an immensely labyrinthine plot which has been unfolding for centuries.
Charlie Brooker, The Guardian

In 1979, the BBC ran a news production training scheme, aiming to attract young, intelligent graduates, who they would train up to become producers, senior managers and executives. Two of the places on that scheme went to Mark Thompson (now Director General) and Jana Bennett (now controller of BBC Vision). Thirty years later, those trainees are now running the BBC. What we are seeing now is the result of training up reporters and news producers, and encouraging them to run the BBC.

With an increase in management-trained news staff, many of the senior executives of the BBC were appointed from news backgrounds. Mark Blyford, deputy director general, first joined the BBC in a news department and became assistant editor on South Today. Jay Hunt, controller of BBC One, joined as a researcher on BBC Breakfast News. Mark Damazer, Controller of Radio 4, was trained at ITN. Having a background in news is now seen as a transferable management skill

With most of the people at the top being from news backgrounds, it's not surprising that so much emphasis is put on the importance of news. However, it's not quite that simple. The nature of news makes it very appealing for BBC executives.

The BBC has six core values:
  1. Impartiality
  2. Audience-Centred
  3. Quality
  4. Creative
  5. Respectful
  6. Collaborative
While these are all wonderful, they're hard to quantify. How do you put a number on creativity? How can you evaluative how respectful you're being?

But there is one value that is easy to meet. That is impartiality. That's easy to show: just do some news reporting and say, a lot, that you're impartial. You don't have to prove you're impartial, it's in the bloody charter. Everyone knows the BBC is impartial. Whether they are or not, and what that impartiality actually means is irrelevent. If you do get into a sticky situation, just put a rascist on Question Time and then everyone will shut up.

More even than this, though, news reporting is a public service. So the BBC can get some public service broadcasting points by putting on a load of news. And they can say it's educational too.

In fact, news is wonderful as a weapon against critics and cynics. You make a drama, and there'll almost certainly be someone that doesn't like it. And then you'll get into a big debate about whether, by extension, all drama on the BBC is rubbish, and how they should make more things like them good American dramas with explosions and fighting and stuff.

However, you'll never get any of this nonsense with the news. Nobody thinks the news is rubbish. This is partly because no one reviews the news. People just don't think of the news as a type of programme they can comment on. It's just there.

It's also cheap. Yes, sure, you have costs of getting reporters to places, and live broadcast equipment, but once you've set up those overheads, all you have to do is send off one broadcaster and give him a camera. Hey, these days you don't even have to give him any camera training - people won't complain about the quality of the video, because its news, and what you lack in quality you make up for by saying "this is news. You got it quickly, didn't you?"

More than that, if you want any extra footage you don't even have to pay for it. "Fair dealing," you can shout as you steal someone else's content, "news reporting, you see. You can't own the news".

You don't have to worry about paying writers, or actors, or post production editors, directors of photography, directors, artists or anything like that. The news is just pointing a camera at stuff that's happening, or, more often that not, pointing a camera at stuff that's about to happen, or stuff that's already happened.

By its nature the news is throw-away. The old adage about today's news being tomorrow's fish and chip paper isn't true anymore, partly because we prissy modern types don't want dirty news print on our food, and partly because day old news is prehistory; even news from five minutes ago is old news.

The great thing about the news is that there's always going to be more of it. You don't have to go through all the effort of commissioning a new series of news. You don't have to worry about ratings, or popularity. You even have long running back-up stories like famine and war that you can always go to if there's not enough political sleeze going on.

Largely, as a broadcaster, the news comes to you. There is a whole industry around news gathering, and generally the events want you to report them, so they come running to you. If you're a newspaper, all you have to do is print out the press releases, staple them together, and voila, you have a newspaper. Stick a couple of fliers in there for deodorant or cars, and, hey, you have a business model.

The news is the broadcasters' dream material. As Charlie Brooker said, it's like the world's longest running soap opera, but better than that, no one ever gets bored of it. You can just carry on running the news forever. It's the ultimate no-fuss product. Make an interview package for News 24, repeat it on the 6 o'clock news, then the 10 o'clock news and then stick it on the website. One package, four audiences.

When you have a product like that, why would you bother investing money into all the faff or making an expensive drama that's just going to cause you heartache later on? No one will complain about a news article. They won't think about it in terms of production values. "It's news," they'll say, "that's why it looks kind of crap. We got it quickly, and there'll be some more in a minute".



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