Stories behind the news

Robin Buss

BREAKING THE NEWS. BBC2. Sundays June 15-July 6. Age range: 14 plus

Are the broadcasts we see every night the truth and nothing but the truth? Robin Buss looks beyond the soundbites

There are three ages of news broadcasting, according to Tony Hall, chief executive at BBC News: the first was radio, and the third, which we are just entering, is an age of computer technology that will allow audiences to access information as and when they like. Between the two is the age of television news, the subject of this outstanding four-part series.

It has, in itself, the merits of an effective current affairs programme. There is a clear narrative development, taking us stage by stage from the humble origins of the television newsreel to the Internet, with lots of film illustrations and the testimony of those who took part.

At the same time, questions are raised - practical, political, moral - to which we have largely to supply our own answers. This will help to make the series a valuable resource for both GCSE and A-level media studies, as well as offering auxiliary material for other subjects on the curriculum, because of the wider questions that news presentation raises about historical evidence, political manipulation and so on.

There is a good deal that we take for granted about the nightly news. It comes as a surprise to learn that, in the early days, radio journalists in the United States refused to go into television ("a fad") and that in Britain, television producers were not sure that they needed to have newsreel as well as newsreaders.

The series, a BBCCBC co-production, concentrates on three states: the US, Britain and the USSR and these, broadly speaking, correspond to commercial imperatives, chartered independence and government control.

Living under the second of these regimes, one is inclined to feel a sense of superiority over the others, and the BBC journalists or producers who take part in the series are not in a hurry to dispel that.

But the stance of superior impartiality has its own pitfalls: while American broadcasters were giving the public what it wanted and Soviet broadcasters performing the same service for their government, British television news had to fight off repeated accusations of either blandness or bias.

There was Eden's fury over Suez, Wilson's fury over Yesterday's Men, Norman Tebbit's "They'll be hearing from us . . ." Eventually, the Thatcher government brought the BBC to heel; the Panorama journalist, Fred Emery, sees the era of Checkland and Birt as "the nadir of good BBC journalism".

The story the pioneers tell is about shaping a genre: devising formats for the news itself, for Panorama, for Tonight, for the Huntley-Brinkley Show; and responding to events: Korea, McCarthyism, Suez.

By the 1960s (and the second programme) television had become the main source of news, while satellite technology was starting to allow international links and immediate transmission of foreign stories. In the USSR, there was a brief thaw between the 22nd Communist Party Congress in 1962 and the fall of Khrushchev in 1964.

The third programme records the reaction: in the West, against the freedoms of the 1960s, and "a period of tragi-comedy" in the USSR as broadcasters tried to sustain an acceptable image of President Brezhnev during his slow decline. Worse still was President Chernenko, filmed as he cast his vote at a mock election booth, in the hospital room where he was dying.

Much the same had happened in France in the early 1970s with the ailing President Pompidou; but European televisions are rigorously excluded from this survey.

You could argue that all "news" is the result of sifting, selection and excision. It is natural to assume that the arrival of dedicated news channels will mean more comprehensive coverage.

Certainly, those who claimed that CNN stood for "Chicken Noodle News" had to eat their noodles after its reporting of the Gulf War. But Martin Bell warns against the increasing pressure "to be first and fast", with particular reference to distortion of events in Bosnia: more coverage is not more accurate, or even necessarily more complete.

At one time, broadcasters determined what constituted "news" according to a particular concept of "the public interest" - assumed to be the same as "public interest" without the definite article. Does anyone make that assumption now?

When we talk about "good television", we usually mean good entertainment: the O J Simpson car chase and trial were "great television". We need to ask whether they were "news", what kind of news we ought to have and the administrative structures that are most likely to supply it. These programmes are an excellent point at which to start considering such questions.

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Robin Buss

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