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Normal service will be resumed shortly. In the meantime watch this kitten playing with a ball of wool.

August 29, 2011

The climax to BBC2’s The Hour sees the idealistic young journalist, Freddie Lyons, make an impassioned plea for public debate and the right to question political leaders. These things he sees as integral to a healthy democracy. And he is not wrong.

Freddie Lyons, The Hour (BBC2)

But as Freddie speaks directly to camera, during a live broadcast, the show is abruptly censored  by his superiors, who literally pull-the-plug on him, leaving television screens all over the nation showing the apparently reassuring message that ‘normal service will be resumed shortly’. With nothing else to broadcast the BBC switch to an ‘interlude’ of a kitten playing on a chair.

The Hour is a drama about a pioneering news and current affairs programme struggling to provide accurate news coverage, comment and opinion in the stifling atmosphere of 1950s Britain during the Suez Crisis. In essence it’s a story about the heroism of journalists and media producers, but it all appears a little self-aggrandising given that the BBC and many other media outlets frequently leave us staring, metaphorically, at the cat playing on the chair and the promise of normal service to be resumed.

I’m going to offer a gross generalisation here but I think it’s called for: most of what is broadcast and printed is fucking atrocious and it is poisoning the democracy that The Hour’s Freddie Lyons stands up for. We saw this recently with the inclusion of David Starkey on a Newsnight panel to discuss the recent riots in English cities.

Nothing qualified Starkey to appear on the programme other than his ability to guarantee controversy. He brought no insight to the debate and indeed he served only to mystify the issues; his idiotic comments subsequently taking up more time that they deserved on the show and for days afterwards. But it’s not really Starkey who deserves a kicking over this: it’s the wanker who thought it appropriate to invite him on to Newsnight in the first place.

If Starkey was there purely for his value as ‘good TV’ then we must conclude that in the midst of a serious crisis Newsnight forsook public debate for a bit of Punch ‘n’ Judy. I think it’s symptomatic of how the media are increasingly disinterested in the real world of things and institutions and people and social relationships, and instead pre-occupied with media ‘product’, which is something that the real world is refracted through and then obliged to adjust to. I’ve seen it first-hand.

Occasionally I get invited to comment in the media about one thing or another and I’m always struck by how apparently disinterested broadcasters are in the actual content of their output. To be honest, I’ve been invited to speak about things that I have no real knowledge or expertise about, but being a bit of a media-whore I always say yes. I’m surprised that I get away with this, but I do, because it really doesn’t matter what I say once on air, providing I don’t curse or cause obvious offence (only well-established controversialists like David Starkey get to do that). The bottom line is that as long as I can talk and there are no embarrassing silences – no ‘dead-air’ – then it doesn’t matter too much what I say. The interviewer isn’t really listening. I’ve been tempted to recite The Lord’s Prayer, or a shopping list, or deliver the shipping forecast in reply to some inane question, just to see if anyone in the studio would notice, which I doubt.

In short, it seems we’ve reached a crisis point where the media is staffed by people who are skilled in filling up a massive and expanding range of media, and do so with noise, nonsense and bullshit. The priority is not to inform, educate and entertain but simply to keep the noise turned on at all costs.

So here are a few proposals that might return the media to the sort of democratic ambitions so eloquently expressed by Freddie Lyons.

1. Let’s have less media – especially, do away with 24 hour news.

2. Expertise and specialist knowledge are a premium – why should anyone be commenting or reporting on issues about which they know fuck all. Just because you can talk uninterrupted shit in front of a microphone for two hours a day doesn’t mean you should.

3. End the practice of temporary and unpaid work. Get people into positions, keep them there and let them learn how to do the job properly.

4. Don’t employ media studies graduates for anything but the most menial tasks!

Okay, the last one’s a bit harsh. But term starts soon and I’m getting my revenge in early…

12 Comments leave one →
  1. CharlieMcMenamin permalink
    August 29, 2011 8:31 pm

    I have a theory: this summer, all the decent Newsnight producers are on holiday/have applied for voluntary redundancy/ have been compulsorily transferred to the BBC pronunciation unit. Only this can explain the idiocy displayed by the people who decide on stories (Sally Bercow in Big Brother FFS?) or book guests (Starkey etc) for the programme. I fear we are in the hands of yoof and the dreaded ‘relevance’, defined as anything yoof might have heard of. This might not be the fault of the yoof themselves: they only respond, in a Pavlovian manner, to the diktats of higher management

    But I tend to disagree that it is media studies students to blame – I suspect the yoof is disproportionately Oxbridge in origin, with English graduates outnumbering PPE by a fair margin ( PPE graduates are so full of themselves they wouldn’t let Mason get anyway with his amazing programming; they genuinely tend to imagine they are the Lords and Ladies of Creation). Someone who can count pass ten without removing their socks ought to tell them that Susan Watts is the best science journalist in the country and get her to do more pieces.

    Rolling news? It’s not that it is a bad idea, its just that it works best on predominantly written Live Blogs on the likes of the Guardian, the BBC website and Al-Jazeera. It’s pretty poor on radio, and absolutely, brain numbingly, rubbish on TV. The Medium needs to suit the Message is my conclusion.

  2. Rab permalink*
    August 30, 2011 5:25 am

    I shall pass your comments onto my media studies students who will be delighted and relieved to hear that none of this is considered their fault.

    Newsnight has been atrocious. There is definitely something going on there and your explanation is as good as any I’ve read… indeed, to be frank, it’s the only one I’ve read. Nevertheless, I can confidently predict I’ll not read a better one.

    Susan Watts, Paul Mason – there’s real expertise and knowledge, rather than generic skills, which seem to be so much in demand everywhere these days.

    But I get the feeling that media organisations have too many casual workers and unpaid interns and graduate volunteers hoping for a break; too little attention paid to training (too expensive – devolve to HE!); and too many people who mistake the preoccupations of media for real life, which despite the best efforts of postmodernists seems to me to persist.

  3. August 31, 2011 10:51 am

    Oooh how scarily right you are, sir! Gone are the days when ‘factual’ television did what it said on the tin. Remember those documentaries that gave you real information from real experts, told in a coherent manner – beginning middle, end? Insights, education and enlightenment?
    Today we demand ‘personality’ on-screen and often at the expense of expertise. More than once a commissioning editor has insisted on getting rid of a TV expert because they don’t ‘look’ the part…..

  4. Rab permalink*
    August 31, 2011 7:06 pm

    “More than once a commissioning editor has insisted on getting rid of a TV expert because they don’t ‘look’ the part…..”

    Hhmmm, I never get asked on TV. I’ve been told I have a great face for radio…

  5. Rab permalink*
    August 31, 2011 7:55 pm

    Yes. The moustache. (I know that your just too polite to mention the eye-patch and the missing tooth, which are even greater visual-handicaps. I mean, Des Lynam had a ‘tache and it didn’t do his TV career any harm.

  6. September 1, 2011 8:35 am

    Well now, TV producers like a point of difference so I think we could make an asset out of the eye patch!

  7. Rab permalink*
    September 1, 2011 3:51 pm

    Glad to hear it.

  8. wartimehousewife permalink
    September 2, 2011 4:07 pm

    Oh hear hear, Rab. I am so sick of the inanity of so much of the news and current affairs and the endless repetition of bugger all. Even on Radio 4. Re Newsnight, I could understand getting Starkey on for an historical perpective on rioting which would actually have been very interesting, although possibly better served by a proper documentary exploring the subject rather than the attempted extraction of soundbites on the telly.

    This all goes far beyond current affairs and news though. I love historical documentaries and I seriously considering abandoning many of them because you can almost hear them in the production meeting choosing a posh, pretty blonde with a speech impediment, wild eyes and over-exaggerated gestures which combine totty, drama and posh but completely fail to bring any proper investigative skills and depth to the subject.

    And that’s if I could get a proper bloody signal from the bloody digital network in the first place. the constant interruptions to the picture and sound made the ghastly woman sound as though she had a terrible stammer as well.


  9. Rab permalink*
    September 2, 2011 7:31 pm

    Hi Wartime,
    “…a posh, pretty blonde with a speech impediment, wild eyes and over-exaggerated gestures…”

    You’re talking about Suzannah Lipscomb, aren’t you? Last seen bubbling enthusiastically but inanely about wedding cakes-through-history on the BBC during the royal wedding travesty.

    Posh Totty

    You can visit Suzannah’s web page here:

  10. September 13, 2011 11:25 am

    No, Wartime means Lucy Worsley (speech impediment is the clue!)

  11. Rab permalink*
    September 13, 2011 8:23 pm

    Ahh. Never heard of her. I’ll google her right away… Cheers, Doug.

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