Sunday, 28 March 2010

Newsmen Wearing Lip Gloss

MARTIN BELL: Beware of newsmen wearing lip gloss | Mail Online

Martin Bell on how tv reporters have become celebrities and fakes - and sacrificed their trade in the process. Worth quoting in full.
One day at the height of the banking crisis I was so concerned about my few diminishing investments that I watched the BBC News Channel doing a live report from the City. It was eight o'clock in the morning and broad daylight. The reporter, venturing out of the cocoon of the TV studio, was standing in the street outside the Bank of England - and he was wearing lip gloss. In my book, real men don't wear lip gloss, not even inside TV studios, never mind outside them. There is something deeply untrustworthy about it. It gives a journalist the look of a snake-oil salesman.

But that's the way the TV news world has been going since, about 15 years ago, it started abandoning the standards and values that it inherited. It wasn't just a matter of accuracy - although I was shocked to hear an executive on one of the rolling news channels defending the broadcasting of a falsehood in the heat of the moment as 'part of the unfolding story'. It was a matter of substance. I recently wrote an introduction to a new edition of William Howard Russell's Despatches From The Crimea. I was impressed by their authenticity. He was there, and what he wrote about was what he saw. It wasn't easy for him. He had his tent cut down. He was threatened with censorship. But he persisted. And, reading his reports, I concluded that readers of the Times in 1854 were better informed about the Crimean war than readers of any newspaper today, or viewers of any TV network, about the war in Afghanistan.

Television is especially at fault. What it lacks in substance it tries to make up for in style. In TV, as in politics, presentation is now paramount. Spin is king of the hill. The BBC led the retreat from the real world into the froth and fluff that masquerades as it. The Corporation was worried about a decline in audiences for all of its mainstream news programmes. It commissioned a mass of audience research and concluded that what was needed was less reporting and more story-telling. Its journalists were re-branded as performers.

All the world was a stage and they were the strolling troupe of players who would be the actors on it. It was not enough to stand there and explain what was going on. They were expected to walk and talk and wave their arms at the same time. The BBC even hired a style coach from Iowa to teach them how to do it. A veteran correspondent was told to acquire a new set of hand signals. It was known - heaven help us - as 'being in the moment'. And all the networks, not just the BBC, went down this road with results that you can see every day on every programme - not so much the TV news as Strictly Come Reporting.

I was once told by one of the practitioners of these dark arts that if I learned them I too could become a wealthy and high-profile anchorman. Fame and fortune, a six- or even seven-figure salary, would be within my reach. 'All you need, Marty,' he said (he was from NBC News of America), 'is sincerity - and if you can fake that you've got it made!'

So the TV news business, which used to be a sober-sided affair, became entwined with the culture of celebrity. There was a pecking order; and to become a TV news celebrity you needed a title. You started as a reporter. You then became a correspondent (a correspondent is a reporter who has lunch). Then an editor or special correspondent. And then maybe a programme presenter. And this was the point of it. You wouldn't just be where the news was. You would actually be the news. And the stories that you told would be at least in part about yourself. John Simpson is a master of this art.

Even now the BBC News Channel runs a regular promotional video showing some of its leading players at the heart of world events. The message is that wherever news breaks the BBC is there, the first and the best. One of the images is that of Huw Edwards, the estimable presenter of the Ten O'Clock News, wearing a flak jacket and talking to soldiers within the relative safety of the Basra Air Station. That was more than two years ago, but it is re-run every day as if it were yesterday. The real story of the defeat and debacle in southern Iraq, and the breaking of the spirit of some very fine soldiers, was never told, by Huw or anyone else.

If you ask why not, I think I know. For all kinds of reasons, mostly understandable, the journalists have retreated from the real world into the comfort of green zones and well-protected hotels. They are seldom on the scene any more. They are doing their stuff on rooftops or in front on video walls. Some of them are very good journalists, but they can no longer report from the thick of things because it is just too dangerous to do so. A warning shot across everyone's bows was the fate of the BBC's Frank Gardner, a brave and brilliant correspondent, who was singled out and gunned down in Saudi Arabia in 2004 - and that was not even, technically speaking, a war zone. His cameraman was killed. Gardner is still reporting, but from a wheelchair.

The terms of trade were changed by 9/11. After that the danger was not of being caught in the crossfire but of being kidnapped, ransomed and executed.

One of the last to try it the old way was Stephen Farrell of the New York Times, who was captured last September by the Taliban when he travelled, without military protection, to the scene of a Nato bombing in Kunduz, Afghanistan. He escaped, but his interpreter and a British soldier were killed in the rescue operation. It is hard to think of anything more damaging to military/media relations than the death of a soldier trying to save the life of a journalist.

So reporters are either 'embedded' - attached to and travelling with a military unit - or they never leave Camp Bastion. I know about embedding. I was a pioneer of it, and keep on my files an identity card, serial number 001, issued by the MoD as Authority For A War Correspondent Accompanying A British Operational Force. This was for the first Gulf War in 1991. I traded freedom for access and went to war alongside the Queen's Royal Irish Hussars. It was a privilege to be there, although in the end it wasn't that much of a war.

Afghanistan, by contrast, is one hell of a war - and the only access to it is through embedding. Some of the coverage has been vivid and in the best traditions of the business. Bill Neely for ITV News, Vaughan Smith for Channel 4 News and Ross Kemp for Sky deserve all kinds of medals for terrific coverage. But it is fragmentary. What is missing, when the shooting starts and the Nato rockets and bombs go in, is the sight of any Afghans and the news of what has happened to them. In a war being fought to win their allegiance, it is a black hole in the coverage.

Embedding can also benefit the journalists, if they choose to learn the lessons in front of their eyes. Soldiers do teamwork, because their lives and operations depend on it. But TV people do not do teamwork. News is like politics: it tends to attract driven and frantically ambitious characters who believe that they can only succeed at each other's expense. (The fiercest competition, as with political parties, is not between organisations but within them.)

This leads to some very strange practices - and malpractices. Those of us who have been in TV a long time know that the work of some of its legends, which we whisper sometimes among ourselves, includes reports that were outright frauds. They looked and sounded like news, and one of them won a prestigious award, but they were from start to finish the most disgraceful and appalling fabrications. These included staging certain scenes, passing off reconstructions as the real thing, topping up the soundtrack with extra gunfire, peppering a script with falsehoods and using counterfeit cutaways to suggest that the reporter was at the front line when in fact he was nowhere near it. Most of these characters have retired - but one of them at least is still in action and doing rather well. He works for one of the major broadcasters. I hope that he has changed his ways. They certainly needed changing.

It may be, of course, that the frauds are rare and most reporters are decent and honourable people. We used to think the same of our MPs.

I believe, from where I've been and what I've seen, that we live in the most dangerous times since 1945. Something wicked this way comes - if not from Helmand and the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, then from Jihadist training camps in Yemen or Somalia. But the conflicts there go virtually unreported.

And TV is increasingly retreating into an easy, soft and anaesthetic news agenda. Jordan is not a country but a celebrity. Gordon Brown weeps on prime-time. Politicians are learning the arts of reality television. Their safest haven is the GMTV sofa. Everything becomes a journey to tug at the heartstrings. Even Tony Blair's book is to be called The Journey.

My former profession has also been on a journey. It has been seduced by celebrity. It has loitered too long in la-la land. It has taken wrong turns and worshipped false gods. But when events in the real world come to strike us - the world that it has so assiduously ignored - it will have to return to its roots in serious journalism. That will wipe the smiles from the presenters' faces. And maybe the lip gloss too.

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