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Too much bang-bang, not enough news.

IT MAY SEEM insensitive to carp about journalists and the media in the same week an American correspondent is apparently beheaded on video but I think the case of James Foley illustrates a profound crisis in contemporary journalism. The crisis is that journalists now see themselves as players in the stories they cover. Everyone is a mini-star in the media show, from the high-tech studio to the dusty, blood-spattered war zones of the Middle East. Objectivity and impartiality are old hat though the pretence is still there.

Watching the Six O’Clock News on BBC is a penitential act. You have to endure about 45 seconds of self-aggrandising musical and graphic intro before the news reader even enunciates the headlines – which are then underscored by a soundtrack and punctuated with drumbeats. It’s like watching a musical. The whole panoply of melodramatic music, techno-wizardry and zooming shots serves only to impress the viewer with the over-riding importance of the messenger rather than the message.

News readers no longer sit there in front of us and read the news out. Nowadays they have to get up and and pose at various times in front of the equivalent of sophisticated Powerpoint presentations. They talk to other correspondents whose main job (apart from standing pointlessly in places where nothing is happening) is to reiterate what the studio-bound presenter has already said. They “interview” politicians, experts and personalities, eliciting no new information whatsoever.

The worst offenders are foreign correspondents. Many of them put themselves in dangerous situations, there’s no doubt about that, but they’re still playing the “look at me, what a bloody hero I am” game. Watching Alex Crawford, one of Sky’s intrepid correspondents, riding shotgun with the anti-Gaddafi rebels a couple of years back, it was obvious she was having the time of her life. Somehow I don’t think she would have been enjoying things as much if she’d been covering it from the other side but no one was sympathising with the Colonel and his cronies. And that’s my point: too often reporters love being with “rebels” and feeling they’re part of history in the making. Their reporting is drama and they want us to be part of it (on the right side, of course).

This latter point was made clear in a rather bruising discussion Crawford had when trying to counter Kelvin MacKenzie’s taunts that no one gave a damn about foreign news. In answer to MacKenzie’s jibe, Crawford repeatedly said that she saw it as her job to help viewers “empathise” with people whose plight she was reporting and to get to them “to respond”. The retort of Jeremy Paxman, who was presenting the programme, was more caustic than anything MacKenzie could throw at her: “What are you, some sort of social worker?”

Too often reporters present us with cliches, opinions or even propaganda as news, expecting us to accept it because we are all assumed to share the same values and ideas, and all want to be on the right side. We are required to care rather than think.

That said it all. Crawford really had no reply. Too often reporters present us with cliches, opinions or even propaganda as news, expecting us to accept it because we are all assumed to share the same values and ideas, and all want to be on the right side. We are required to care rather than think. Reporters are now our heroes on the front line of public morality as well as of conflict (in which, as Crawford admits, producers are seduced by too much “bang bang”) – how can we not believe them? News is less about information and more a conflation of entertainment and propaganda.

The corrupting effects of this should be plain to anyone who believes in objectivity and independent thinking. Unfortunately they seem to be few in number, with most people happy to believe in the supposed objectivity and impartiality of the media, particularly the BBC. The most egregious examples of this failure in standards can be seen in the latter’s reporting of the recurrent Israel-Gaza conflicts. In the latest round of fighting, for instance, the BBC’s Middle East Editor, Jeremy Bowen, noted in The New Statesman, “I saw no evidence during my week in Gaza of Israel’s accusation that Hamas uses Palestinians as human shields.” He may well indeed not have seen evidence himself, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t know it wasn’t happening — after all, Hamas officials themselves said years ago that it was. If he hadn’t seen it himself, he may wonder if that’s because Hamas made sure he didn’t see it. Or that it was plain that if he did admit it he wouldn’t be allowed back into Gaza.

Crawford and Bowen represent two faces of this crisis: one is the journalist as surrogate warrior exciting us with lots of “bang-bang” and expecting us to be “empathetic”, the other is the seasoned journalist using his years of experience and knowledge to keep us on the “right” track so that we don’t dare question the accepted narrative. James Foley played the part of the former and it may have cost him his life. He stopped being a “voice” for the victims of conflict and in becoming a victim turned himself into the story. What we all end up getting is too much “bang-bang”and not enough news.

Michael Blackburn.

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