Newswipe, episode 4 on iPlayer (until 15 April 2009)

This week, Charlie does the reporting of the G20 protests, which during the live feeds actually comes out pretty balanced. Buffoonish (there’s a quote in there from Tony Benn, asking Sky News why they weren’t broadcasting the speeches so viewers could understand what people were actually, you know, protesting about), but giving an even hand to the aggressive flare-ups and the largely peaceful majority. In the bulletin reports, the standout images of bleeding heads and breaking glass took precedence and gave the impression that over-heated predictions of rioting had been realised. But this mass coverage did nothing in the way of explaining events overall, or capturing the biggest story of the day:

And here’s the irony: at a public event granted absolute saturation coverage, with all the press photographers, live feed images, Skycopters, preposterous Skyboats and all, the news had missed perhaps the most important image of the day. In the end, it took some old-fashioned investigative reporting and member of the public to bring this image to the nation’s attention: some disturbing footage of a man being pushed over by the police. Shortly after, he died of a heart attack.

(That was Wednesday. As of yesterday, we know that Ian Tomlinson’s death was a bit more complicated than that, and there are two other similar cases now being looked at by the IPCC.) I like Truman Capote’s crack about the beat poets – that they were typing, not writing. And 24-hour news coverage is just broadcasting, not reporting.


Newswipe, episode 3 on iPlayer (until 15 April 2009)

This one felt a little looser and less urgent than the first two: maybe the madness of Fox News is too astonishing on its own to leave room for the sharp analysis Brooker built up around citizen journalism and rolling news. Even so, Brooker gives the smartest take on how the news is put together and consumed, and this week the end-of-the-half-hour highlight was an Adam Curtis short film.

It reprises several themes from Curtis’ previous documentaries about the problems inherent in using television journalism as a way of interpreting the world. Audiences and journalists have deserted the disection of complex political and social issues because that’s, well, a bit dull – and embraced instead an emotive interpretation, championing innocent and heroic individuals in the face of monolithic and impersonal ‘systems’. By Curtis’s reckoning, this trope was born in the 1960s counterculture, came of age in the 80s with Live Aid, flourished in the 90s as a replacement for the east-vs-west certainties of the Cold War, and then foundered painfully on the complexities of the Rwandan genocide:

This simple battle between good and evil couldn’t last. But it finally cracked back where is first began, in Africa. In 1994 the Hutus massacred millions of Tutsis in Rwanda. In the wake of the massacre, millions of refugees flooded into the Cogo. Western aid workers and television crews also flooded in, to help the ‘innocent’ victims. But they soon discovered that many of them weren’t innocent at all – they were the ‘evil’ Hutus who killed millions of the Tutsis.

Then, the Tutsis invaded the camps to get their revenge. But instead of behaving like good victims, they too carried out terrible massacres, and a horrific war began in which four-and-a-half million people died, and everyone was evil – even the children.

And that had a terrible effect on television news. Because when there weren’t any good or innocent people to support any longer, the kind of news reporting invented in the 90s made no sense. Because the news had given up reporting them as political struggles, it meant there was now no way to understand why these terrible events were happening, and instead, political conflicts around the world – from Darfur to Gaza – were now portrayed to us as simple illustrations of the mindless cruelty of the human race about which nothing could be done and to which the only response is to say, “oh dear”.

Obviously, this is a rangy thesis to carry off in six-and-a-bit minutes. Curtis manages it because, well, he’s Adam Curtis and no one turns out a well-constructed video essay like he does – and because the broad generalisation feels broadly right. Political causes that can’t be explained with three brightly coloured arrows don’t make it onto the television, and the consequently rootless portrayal of struggle and suffering doesn’t inspire any sense that systems can be altered or lives saved: what’s left is a grisly parade of disasters and no idea of what to do about them.



Newswipe, episode 2 on iPlayer (until 8 April 2009)

This week, Charlie Brooker found something interesting to say about a topic I’d given up: I was as sad about Jade Goody as I would be about anyone I was peripherally aware of going through something agonisingly tragic, I wasn’t perplexed by the coverage (she invited it, it sold), and while it made me a bit uncomfortable, it didn’t send me into giddy horrors at the unimaginable depravity of everyone else.

Brooker, obviously, goes a bit better than my dillentante blogging:

Throughout the depressing blanket coverage, Jade was repeatedly referred to as a “star of reality TV”, which she was – although it’s more accurate to say she was a star of reality TV and news. After all, in her final weeks, taken accumulatively, she made far more appearances on the front pages and in news broadcasts than on her Living TV specials. […] In the end, Jade Goody died on the biggest reality show going: not Big Brother or some Living TV special, but the news. After all, with its jaunty titles and its easy hate figures, its selective storytelling and its stupid viewer votes, it’s a hairsbreadth from being a multi-platform I’m A Celebrity spin-off.

Brooker’s always been sharp on the idea that reality TV viewers (including him) are responding to the editing and not the actual people. But the with factual TV adopting the narrative and editorial structures of reality TV’s semi-fiction, viewers respond to real events – like the death of a young mother-of-two – as if they were the fabrications of the editing suite. Which they sort of are.

A story like the Jade one is a grotesque feedback loop: the editors follow the story because they presume the readers are interested, the publicity drives interest and becomes a story in itself, and viewers and readers respond with extremes of emotion, from vomitously sympathetic to gorily inhumane, while interest in analysis or investigation is driven out by the perpetual gush of feeling. And that’s how the news gets made.



Newswipe, episode 1 on iPlayer (until 1 April 2009)

I got a Private Eye subscription for Christmas. The biggest perk of being an Eye subscriber is having cancellation as the ultimate threat if they do something I really dislike, so obviously ever since January I’ve been looking out for something to inspire a tart letter and a stopped direct debit. And handily,  it turns out that I do think the Eye is flagging a bit.

They didn’t feature anything about the Dunblane story in the last issue. It looked like they swiped the Glen Jenvey story from Bloggerheads without crediting it (unforgiveable really when the Ad Nauseum column makes so much play of calling out advertisers who thieve from Youtube). They did a parody of Steven Fry’s lift tweets that misunderstood the @ tags, and consequently totally overlooked the usefulness of Twitter as a tool for spreading information. As a media watchdog they look badly outpaced by the internet, the takedown of churnalism in Flat Earth News was more comprehensive than the Eye‘s fortnightly digs, and however doggedly they refuse to do a proper online version, the classified pages definitely look less packed than they used to.

I’m not cancelling my sub yet, but I’m only holding out until Charlie Brooker’s Newswipe becomes a rolling service. Last night’s show was purgingly funny and properly revelatory – especially the big finish about reporting mass murders. It’s sickening to see Dr Park Dietz’s comments juxtaposed with the news footage that explicitly ignores his advice. Don’t cut the story as a drama. Don’t cast the killer as an anti-hero. Don’t give blanket coverage to massacres… oh no, they already did.

The degree to which new reporting ignores its own role in making stories while asking “why?”  is obscene: newspapers did exactly the same over the Bridgend suicides, grimly demanding an explanation for all the deaths while they made front-page heroes of the deceased and publicised the methods used. (“Look, all your friends are doing it, and we’ll even show you how!”) There’s actually a set of guidelines in place for reporting suicides that should prevent that sort of covert incitement – and good luck to you getting some compensation out of the PCC for the loss of a loved one. These stories are the definition of self-sustaining flat earth news, and you’d hope that when people are actually dying the media would notice that it’s doing something wrong.