Monday, 30 April 2012

TV news reports often reduce foreign wars to meaningless televisual wallpaper

I know how horribly mean and insular this is going to sound – but I’ve just seen a report on this evening’s BBC News about the state of emergency declared by Sudan regarding its border with South Sudan, and I couldn’t help wondering why the BBC bothered risking the life of reporter Andrew Harding and his cameraman in order to bring it to us.

There’s very little news that can’t be adequately told in a 20 second read over video or a still of some kind. This story certainly could have been. In fact, there are certain stories where video not only doesn’t help – it either positively confuses or distracts the viewer. Here we had shots of soldiers on trucks pulling back from – or heading towards – the border, captured tanks, gunfire accompanied by shots of the ground as a South African camera crew ran for their vehicle, burning oilfields, longshots of flat, boring featureless terrain, the standard hospital scenes featuring the injured and the horribly maimed (a poignant shot of a former footballer, now minus a foot), incomprehensible interview snippets with a military commander and a chap at the hospital who seemed to be making a plea for peace, and a piece-to-camera by the reporter crouching near some soldiers.

What was it all about? What did it actually mean? How were we supposed to react? Who - if any - were the good guys here? What did this have to do with Britain? There wasn’t space enough in the report for the sort of background information that might have enabled us to place the various images in some sort of context. It ended up just being depressing and wearying and confusing – a two-minute cliché, TV news wallpaper. The main question it left in my mind was why do so many of today’s wars seem to take place in arid dumps?

If the reporter had died putting together this item, would anyone – let alone his nearest and dearest - have thought he hadn’t died in vain?

I wasn’t any more certain of the value of this sort of coverage when I actually worked in TV news. I remember back in the early ‘90s a producer colleague – really nice bloke - being sent to cover the latest “Heart of Darkness”-style horrors in Liberia – a country in which he appeared to have little interest and even less knowledge – and wondering what possible justification there could possibly be for risking the life of this young family man in order to depress British TV viewers. How would the executives who had decided to send him – all of them thoroughly decent human beings – have felt if he’d died?

At that instant I realised that I was absolutely not cut out for foreign news. I had no desire whatsoever to visit anywhere dangerous, and, while I’m not an overly sensitive soul, I would have found it impossible to deploy colleagues to distant hell-holes just so they could send back a few largely meaningless reports designed to fill a bit of space towards the end of the evening bulletin (or, worse, the lunchtime news).

I’m not in the least against covering foreign events – political upheaval, wars, natural disasters etc – but I know from experience that reports like the one featured tonight are often simply stuck into running order because they’re available (they were probably filed for the 24-hour news channel), they allow executives to tick the box marked “unsexy but worthy”, and airing them justifies the cost of having a reporter there in the first place (foreign news-gathering used to give programme editors a very hard time if they tried to drop such items - I expect they still do). The very fact that many of these reports appear at weekends, when domestic news can be a trifle sluggish, demonstrates that they aren’t at the top of anyone’s agenda.

If these two-minute slices of enervating unpleasantness were shedding light on the events they cover, the risk and the expense might be justified – but they rarely tell us anything. That isn’t the fault of news organisations or their journalists – it’s just that the conventions of the brief news package tend to turn nasty, complex muddles into violent wallpaper.

1 comment:

  1. War Corrrespondents. Very interesting subject. My three favourites are:

    1. Ernest Hemingway. During the drive on Paris in 1944 and on a huge retainer from Collier's Magagazine "Hem" decided he was a soldier and not a reporter [he had already decided to divorce Martha Gellhorn on the grounds that she had arrived in Normandy well before him] so bristling with guns and with a band of Maquisards he appointed himself chief recce unit in front of General Leclerc's 2nd Division [this included trying to torture young German soldiers by applying lit candles to their bare feet until a British officer told him to grow up]. Leclerc also told him to bugger off. He then reported the rest of the war from the Ritz in Paris [as well as the Hotel Scribe at the same time] and consumed much food and drink while Paris was starving.

    2. Richard Dimbleby. Also, during WWII, he flew around 20 misssions with Bomber Command which he reported on BBC Radio [why would you "voluntarily" fly with Bomber Command across German cities during which the attrition rate was the worst in the war?]. He flew on 20 missions - another 10 he would have qualified for the DFC. He also went through the revulsion of reporting on Belsen-Birkenau.

    3. Brian Barron. During the 2nd Gulf War Barron filed a piece from the mess of a US aircraft carrier. While F-14s and F-18s took off or landed above him with great noise and while surrounded by US naval ratings sitting around in their skivvies drinking coffee the Red One appeared in full battle kit to deliver his piece; Battle fatigues, Flak vest, Huge Helmet and a pair of incrongruous noise suppressant head-phones . His piece was incomprehensible because he delivered it with his vizor down. And he had a camp voice.

    The bravery of war correspondents is undoubted [ the respective Liberators of Port Stanley and Kabul, for example], but the nature of modern warfare [no front-lines] and the cynicism of the media [the UK spent £300m on bombing Libya, when was the last time that shit-hole was in the news?]. Maps, background, why are we there, why are we intervening and war correspondents - get out of the way. War reporting is not show biz.