Friday, November 13, 2009

Going cold turkey on the TV news

(First published in the Curmudgeon column, The Dominion Post, November 11.)

I HAVE ALMOST given up entirely on the television news.

This is not easy. Watching the TV news is like addiction to tobacco; you know it’s not good for you, but a lifetime habit is hard to break. There’s always the nagging fear that I might miss seeing something really important.

Fortunately the television networks, bless them, are doing their best to make the parting painless for me.

A watershed moment came when TV3 led its 6pm bulletin with coverage of Air New Zealand chief executive Rob Fyfe’s apology for the way the airline treated the families of those who died in the Mt Erebus tragedy in 1979.

The bulletin editors decided that in her preamble to the item, newsreader Hilary Barry should give viewers the benefit of her opinion on the airline’s behaviour 30 years ago. “Frankly, it stank”, Barry harrumphed.

Perhaps I’m alone in this, but I neither expect nor want to hear facile editorial opinions from newsreaders – least of all from one who, by my reckoning, was about nine years old when Flight NZ901 slammed into Erebus, and who probably remembers less about it than many of her viewers. What gob-smacking effrontery.

Of course it may not have been Barry’s opinion at all, but words written by someone else for her to say – which, if anything, makes it worse. Was it Barry’s own opinion, in which case it was worth no more than that of the corner dairy owner, or was it the opinion of some anonymous TV3 person behind the scenes whose view might carry some weight if only we knew who the person was? It’s anyone’s guess.

The very vagueness of this editorial posturing makes it meaningless, yet at the same time slightly disturbing. Unlike a newspaper editorial, which is clearly an expression of opinion for which the editor takes responsibility, the viewers don’t know where this opinion emanated from or what, if any, importance to attach to it.

More disturbingly still, the promiscuously casual mixing of news and comment – long the journalistic stock-in-trade of TV3’s political editor Duncan Garner – means viewers increasingly have to guess which is which.

A few nights earlier, TV3 had repelled me with its highly opinionated coverage of the discovery of missing toddler Aisling Symes’ body in a stormwater drain at Henderson.

Being wise after the event, which is something TV reporters do very well, the journalist slagged off the police for not finding Aisling earlier. My guess is that the reporter was instructed to adopt her smugly moralistic tone. Certainly it wouldn’t have happened without her editors’ approval.

At times like this I cringe with shame at the behaviour of my fellow journalists, and I recall the famous condemnation of the British press by Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin in 1931: “Power without responsibility – the prerogative of the harlot through the ages”.

What is noticeable about editorialising by TV journalists is that it seems calculated to exploit populist sentiment. They choose soft targets, playing to the public appetite for scapegoats and moral outrage.

It’s considered safe to heap scorn on Air New Zealand, especially since most of the people who might once have defended the airline are no longer around, and it’s considered safe to rubbish the police for not finding a dead toddler earlier, though there were good reasons why that didn’t happen, and Aisling’s life wouldn’t have been saved in any case.

Police, like politicians, are considered fair game in almost any circumstances.

A British newspaper journalist once wrote, tongue only partly in cheek, that editorial writers hid in the hills till the fighting was over, then came down and bayoneted the wounded. The same is now true of TV reporters.

This coincides with a fundamental change in the role of the TV journalist, whose primary function these days is not so much to impart important information as to provoke an emotional reaction from the viewer – be it grief, fear, anger, sympathy, disgust or whatever.

So I must now steel myself at 6 o’clock and try to ignore the temptation to switch on the TV set. Each evening I assess whether the benefit of anything I am likely to learn by watching the news will be outweighed by the irritation of sitting through so much pap. Most nights the balance of probabilities favours leaving the TV off.

The intrusion of editorial comment into the news is the proverbial last straw, coming on top of silly gimmickry like tandem newsreaders (can anyone remember when it took only one person to read the news?) and pointless live crosses to attractive reporters who have the language and pronunciation skills of pre-schoolers.

TVNZ offers no respite, since the two networks are locked in a downward spiral of crassness in which any new form of idiocy adopted by one is quickly mimicked by the other.

Newspapers can irritate me too, but there’s a vital difference. Reading the paper, you can see at a glance the stories you have no interest in reading – the depressing child abuse trial, the antics of celebrities you’ve never heard of – and pass over them.

Television doesn’t allow that luxury. You either endure the dross, hoping it will throw up an occasional nugget, or you forgo it altogether. More and more often, I’m choosing to do the latter.


Derek McGovern said...

Thanks for an excellent essay. You're certainly not alone in loathing the practice of TV newsreaders making editorial comments.

Hilary Barry, in particular, has long irritated me with her throwaway remarks (whether scripted by her editors or not). She seems to have a particular fondness for passing negative comments on items dealing with Asia, feeling it necessary to tell us, for example, that she was revolted by China's environmental problems ("Yuck"), or that she disapproved of the notion of Korean computer gamers becoming as famous as sportspeople ("I hope not").

"Harrumphed", as you put it, sums up the peculiar brand of Barry-moralising perfectly.

Mind you, it was actually TVNZ that truly started the rot in television news when back in the early 1990s, the Head of News (Paul Norris, I think it was) made it official policy at TV1 for newsreaders to "give guidance to the viewer" by either smiling or frowning, as appropriate. As far as I can tell, that policy hasn't changed, and TV3 has certainly taken it a step further.

Disturbing stuff indeed.

Thanks again for a great essay.

hughvane said...

Right on Mr dF!

I long ago weaned myself off tv news, right up to the point where I no longer have a tv. Media 'make' the news these days - just listen to a tired old outfit like Radio NZ and Mng Rpt; or read the desperate text of journalists on Stuff.