I Had Never Read the News

I had covered earthquakes, interviewed Presidents, cowered under gunfire, delivered grave statements to camera while balancing, absurdly,  on a camera box so that the Taj Mahal/Great Wall of China/Miscellaneous Secret Police HQ would be framed conveniently over my shoulder.

But I had never Read The News. It wasn’t that I particularly wanted to – indeed , those pampered para-celebrities in their warm studios, perfectly lit and with other people’s words conveniently unrolling before them on Autoscript, have always been mildly despised by reporters in the field, particularly when the field in question was cold and damp, the light was fading fast, and the words just weren’t coming. It’s a sentiment privately shared by many newsroom journalists; among the kinder descriptions of a newsreader is ‘gob-on-a-stick’.

But deep down I thought, guiltily, that it would be rather nice to have a go, and when at the end of a long lunch at a Shepherd’s Bush restaurant (a meal themed mainly, as I mistily remember, around the Syrah grape) I confessed my secret shame to the head of BBC TV World News she said I could give it a go.  Nothing fulltime, mind you (which is just as well, because newsreading is not a fulltime job for any fulltime human being) and nothing too high profile. 

So it was that I blundered into ten years of reading the news on television in the middle of the night, on weekends, Bank Holidays, and other graveyard shifts, and, to make sure that even fewer people would notice my moonlighting activities I performed them on a channel which no-one in the UK was actually able to receive.  I was, to all intents and purposes, that paradoxical figure - a secret TV newsreader.

BBC World broadcasts to about a hundred million people (something I often used mischievously to drop into conversation with the grandees of Ten O’Clock Newsreading when they were celebrating new ratings successes of a measly seven or eight million).  I was, apparently, quite big in Bangladesh, but at home I can travel on the tube or nip to Tesco Metro with a virtual guarantee of not being mobbed by feverish fans.  The period just after the summer was always a bit risky, when people would return from holidays in exotic locations and give you the querulous gaze of those who think they know you but can’t remember why.  Occasionally work colleagues from the grown-up day job would catch you out – “I was on my honeymoon in Cappadocia and saw you on the bedroom tv”; it never ceases to amaze me how many people, lying in the tousled bedclothes of some balmy, romantic location, the stars shimmering on a distant lagoon and the night scents of jacaranda wafting through the unshuttered window, would turn on the telly to watch BBC World.

Whisper it low, but there really isn’t very much to the craft of the newsreader.  Essentially, if you can read a bedtime story to your children convincingly, and not fall off the chair, you qualify for the shortlist.    I was never very good at it, and there are newsreading superstars whose skills I could never aspire to – at least two – but the trick seemed to be to speak in capital letters, with an air of dispassionate concern for most news items, but allowing the odd twinkle to shimmer through the gravity when the subject turned to sport, or the weather.  The physical and emotional gear change was subtly managed;  “ Britons are reported to be among the dead”....look down, turn over blank sheet of paper, look up with fresh and cheerful smile and.. “Sport now!  And New Zealand made an impressive start blah blah blah.”

Sport is, for some reason, always classed as light relief, and I suppose you can see the point when the whole bulletin has thus far been about Afghanistan and global warming.  I was only once caught out, when, in a surprise, late and unread addition to the bulletin I cheerily addressed the camera “Cricket! And Jamaican police are treating as murder the suspicious death of Pakistan coach Bob Woolmar..”  On such occasions, in the endlessly prolonged microseconds as the brain slowly acknowledges the mismatch between content and demeanour, the skill lies in managing the smile.  Kill it stone dead, and the audience know that you know that you have blundered.  Keep it on, and you run the risk of appearing insufficiently sympathetic to the plight of allegedly murdered sportsmen.  The trick lies in the fast fade.  The subtext – look, we all know cricket is a happy subject, don’t we, and indeed it is, but even in cricket bad things can happen, and here am I to explain it all to you…

I think I got away with it.  Sport is always a bit of a minefield, though.  One colleague never fully recovered from reading a football story as “Liverpool beat Everton three-love”; and Basque competitors in the Tour de France have an alarming absence of vowels, and a bewildering amount of double X’s in their names.

The weather is also essentially comedic, in the newsreading vernacular, and has to be introduced with a sports-style smile.  For some reason it is never enough to say “Now, the weather”.  An element of mystery, mischief and and caprice is demanded.  Hence “Well, now, let’s see what the weather has up its sleeve for tomorrow” and other mock-jolly grotesqueries are invoked.  What makes this difficult is that BBC World has a somewhat global remit, so the answer to what the weather has up its sleeve is inevitably somewhat broadbrush – Sunny in sub-Saharan Africa, for instance, Rainy in the Indonesian archipelago and, not infrequently, Cold in the Arctic.  The joshing interchanges between the main presenter and the weather desk, so much a feature of domestic rolling news, are denied to BBC World, as the forecast is invariably pre-recorded.  Sadly,  in the hourly churning of the bulletins the name of the weather person often remains unchanged, while a new weather presenter has come on shift, so the blithe request “Well, what’s the weather up to, Bill?” may receive a reply from an intransigeantly female Belle.  Presumably to the confusion of the faithful viewer in Samarkand.

These onscreen conversations are the staple of rolling news, where television’s demands for immediacy and economy are met by the expedient of interviews between presenter and correspondent.  There is more to this dialogue than meets the eye, and somewhat less than meets the brain.  First, the newsreader in London probably has more up-to-date information than the hapless hack-on-the-spot in Kabul, because the newsreader has access to all the electronic wire-services reporting the relevant incident, while the correspondent has been stuck in front of the regulation palm-tree outside the bureau with an earpiece and a microphone for at least an hour, relaying the same perishable secondhand information (for the correspondent, too, has only learnt of the incident from the wires) to a host of other outlets, from Radio 4 to Newsround. 

The net sum of information may be that a bomb has gone off in a crowded market place in Baghdad, killing at least ten people, and that the incident bears ‘all the hallmarks’ of Islamic extremists.  Unfortunately, the very introduction to this item will contain all these ingredients, leaving little else of value to be said.  This, however, is not a consideration in the world of rolling news.  Thus

PRES:  Reports are coming in of a bomb explosion in Baghdad.  The attack, which bears all the hallmarks of an Islamic extremist movement, is said to have killed at least ten people.  For more, let’s cross live to our Correspondent Fred Fearless.  Fred, what more can you tell us?

FF:  Well, as always in these incidents, initial reports are confused, but it does seem to be the case that there has been an explosion with significant loss of life.

PRES:  We hear this happened in a market…where exactly is this market and just how crowded was it?

FF:  Well, these markets are a typical soft target for the insurgents, because there are lots of people milling around and they’re relatively easy to infiltrate.  It would have been packed with people, going about their daily business, buying food and so on.

PRES:  Interesting you used the word ‘insurgents’ there, Fred.  What’s known about those most likely to be responsible?  It seems to have all the hallmarks of an Islamic extremist organisation?

FF:  Oh, absolutely, and I’m sure there’ll be no shortage of groups claiming responsibility for this latest outrage.  It could be one of a number of groups, often with overlapping membership; you see, in Iraq the insurgency covers a broader field than we’re accustomed to in the West, with the IRA or the Basque group ETA, for instance –

PRES: Fred, thank you, we must leave it there, but as soon as we have more on this developing story we’ll bring it to you.  Just to recap what we know, reports are coming in….

Sometimes there is a more sinister game afoot than mere bulletin-padding.  Newsreaders are the most insecure group on the planet (for reasons I will go into later) and are desperate to demonstrate their authority and omniscience.  These are the newsreaders the wretched correspondent dreads most. 

PRES: least ten people.  Fred Fearless, this is the twelfth such attack in as many days.  It really looks like the start of the co-ordinated campaign threatened last week in that video circulated to Western news agencies.  It also underlines the fragility of the American claim to have restored security to Baghdad – something which is going to have a serious impact on the mid-term elections.

FF:  Absolutely….

Listen to almost any news interview and ‘absolutelies’ will litter ever response.  That’s simply because these are not real conversations, nor exercises in eliciting illumination, but a mutual exchange of limited information with both parties scrapping for ownership of the facts.

The most bizarre example came, indeed, from Iraq, at the time of the invasion.  Health and Safety considerations mean that it is now impossible to cover wars as we did, for instance in Vietnam – taking a taxi to the frontline, or cadging a lift on a combat helicopter.  Presenters were flown out to neighbouring Doha.  Hotel rooms were booked with balconies overlooking a suitably Arabian, but non-specific landscape.    Down the road was the US media centre – for the US had learnt a lot since Vietnam – where information about what was going on a country away was duly imparted to the grateful, gathered scribes. 

Central to the grammar of television news is that the presenter (in this case Our Man on the Hotel Balcony) is the source of authority.  The correspondent (Our Man in the Press Feeding Facility) feeds the presenter with fresh information, which the presenter, with the accumulated wisdom of ages, digests on the viewer’s behalf.  All the time, however, the latest, most unpasteurised, and probably more truthful news is in London, away from the enclosed information loop of media management.  In London, after all, there was access to a multiplicity of wire service reports, experts and analysis. 

Our Man on the Balcony Quite Close to Iraq, then, had to rely on London about what was going on.  Nevertheless, the charade was dutifully played out, day after day, whereby he would ‘go over live’ to Our Man in the Press Room to ask him questions about the progress of the invasion – questions to which, courtesy of London, he knew the answers.  Regrettably, however, the US facility was a relatively insulated affair, to the disadvantage of the correspondent.  There arose the spectacle, therefore, of a man not-in-Iraq, who had information from London about developments in Iraq, asking questions of another man not-in-Iraq to elicit this information which, unfortunately, he did not possess.  An extra piquancy was added to absurdity in that Balcony Man and Press Room Man were never the closest of professional colleagues.    The on-screen dialogue, therefore, was tetchy at best, in a dialogue that inevitably projected the newsreader as better informed than the correspondent. 

Some correspondents have taken pre-emptive action against presenter terrorism by recording their answers in advance,  with gaps in which the presenter has to drop in pre-scripted questions.  (An interview with a correspondent is called a two-way; this variant is known as a ‘codded two way’.)  Sometimes they simply deliver one, long response to an imagined umbrella question, so that they can say what they want to say.  This is known in the newsroom as a ‘rant’. 

It is believed among some cultures that when people are photographed, some of their soul is lost.  Imagine, therefore, the effect of a lifetime’s exposure to the camera, day after day, at the rate of hundreds of images a second.  Many years in television have convinced me of the damage not only to the soul, but to sanity.  In few other walks of life can there be so many damaged characters, and presenters are the most severely affected.

I think it is because if you are front of camera there is no logical reason to believe that you are not the centre of the universe.  Cameras are pointed at you, and your image is relayed on scores of monitors in the control room.  Someone is at hand to make you as beautiful as possible; another to make sure that you have refreshment at hand, yet another,  out of vision, to help you as to what camera you should address, someone to present words for you to read, and, a the end of things, a whole regiment of people to tell you how wonderful you were.  On top of that you get paid a king’s ransom for half an hour’s showing off.  It would take a ferociously strong personality to resist the belief that the world does not revolve around you, and unfortunately the job of the newsreader tends not to attract personalities of the relevant fortitude – indeed, those already weakened by the vices of vanity and self-importance are the very ones attracted to the job, like moths to the lethal, flickering flame.

There’s also the problem that having a ringside seat at the circus of history can beguile you into believing that you are central, rather than peripheral to it.  Again, war reporting is particularly dangerous in this respect.  Did a much-respected colleague fall victim to this when he wrote this in his blog….

Even under the massive umbrella that shrouds our BBC World set in Doha, it is 95 degrees in the shade.  The back of my shirt drips sweat in the sun, but fortunately the front,  in the shade, still looks reasonably crisp and acceptable.  Survival in the fast-rising Gulf heat depends on drinking masses of water (at least four litres a day), changing shirts frequently between on-air appearances…

War, indeed is hell, but to talk of survival, when it depends on room service and the hotel laundry, seems to stretch the concept a little - even in the context of the newsreader’s global responsibilities.

In that respect there is little difference between being a news anchor, financial analyst, coalition commander, government official, prime minister or President.  None of us wants to be caught out by the vital piece of information that others seem to know, but we don’t.  I wake up to BBC World and flit through the other channels.  Even taking a few hours sleep can be risky in a war that is prosecuted 24 hours a day.  It is about topping up the massive cerebral database that we as news presenters are expected to draw upon knowledgeably at any time.

The massive cerebral database.  You did read that.

I’m afraid I took a rather less pressured view of the task, one reason, perhaps, why I never achieved news-anchor stardom.  Another reason could be that the network heads never really noticed me, arriving as I usually did in the late evening, early morning, or at the weekend – times when the boss class were eerily absent.  (Dear reader, I fear I must suspend this next sentence until the lawyers have had a little look at it!)

Low-budget TV involves going live to various open-ended televised events, such as EU press conferences, where the anchor’s task is to watch ten minutes’ worth of Eurospeak and then nonchalantly sub-edit it down to a pithy paragraph.  “That was Hans Dieter Scnitzenfelter, defending robustly the latest Particulates Directive from the Commission, with its emphasis, as ever, on subsidiarity.  Sport, now…”

Even that facile précis would be scripted for you if you were one of the gods of the Six or Ten o’Clock news, but in a rolling newsroom there’s often hardly time to watch the output, let alone provide a one-line analysis for the presenter.  In moments of crisis - and how one longs for them , to break the aching monotony of repetitive news - the message comes through the earpiece – “fill”.  I remember news coming through of a fatal aircrash in which the President of Macedonia had been killed.  The race was on to raise our Macedonian correspondent.  On the screen was a map of the Balkans.  Helpfully, there was a dot marked Skopje.  Which was a start.  “And of course the news, or reports of it, are beginning to reach the Macedonian capital, Skopje…

” Hell, wasn‘t there an earthquake once in Skopje?  I dimly remembered there being an Emergency Relief Appeal to which, as a sixthformer I had contributed.  Let’s risk it.

“Skopje, of course, scene of a devastating earthquake in the sixties…since then, of course, completely rebuilt…but now facing…of course…a political earthquake…if, of course, these early reports – which of course have yet to be verified, coming as they do from only one news agency at the moment, if these reports turn out to be..true… The Balkans, of course, since the death of Tito, a deeply fragmented area politically, you might almost say on a geopolitical faultline of its own…”  I still shudder at the memory of my polyfilla burble, which, I am told, took up the requisite six minutes before the correspondent had reached to the studio.  No-one had any comment to make on what I had said.  No-one, in the behind-the-scenes chaos of the television gallery, might have had time to listen to it.  It was enough that I Had Filled.

Another such occasion was when World went over (and just in time I choked back the word ‘live’) to the lying-in-state of Pope John Paul II in one of the Vatican staterooms.  A stream of Italian dignitaries passed by the bed to pay their respects, but, coming direct and without commentary from Rome no-one had any confident idea as to who they were.  But it was a great and grave occasion, and free to boot, so the scene was going to stay on air for a considerable amount of time.  Northing for, it, then, but to Google the Vatican website, and to glean the priceless information that the room where the late Pope lay in state was called the Clementine Hall.  Back to Google, and, off-screen, I could murmur authoritatively about the ‘large, 17th. Century salon…covered…of course…by frescoes…very close to the private apartment where the pontiff died.  Often used, of course, the Clementine Hall, for audiences with world leaders… world leaders..of course…who will soon be coming to Rome for the funeral…The room, remarkable for a colossal chandelier with a green patina hanging from the centre of the rounded ceiling, which includes, of course, images of angels reaching for the Holy Spirit represented as a white dove…”

The skill was to avoid accidentally blurting out the opening times and ticket prices.  (The frequent repetition of ‘of course’ imparts the requisite air of confident authority, as well as taking up useful seconds.  Other verbal infuriators include “just how” as in “just how significant is this report?” with its implication that the anchor knows – of course – that it is significant, but needs to locate it precisely on the spectrum of significance).

But most of the time, reading the news is rather like war: not in its laundry-and-litres neurotic dimension, but in that, like war, there are periods of tedium punctuated by moments of terror.  The tedium sets in on a shift when there are ten bulletins to be read in seven hours.  (This is a misery which does not afflict those who read the national bulletins, one single twenty-five minute which takes a good half day to prepare and which is followed by an hour-long post-mortem.)  There are days – or, more usually, nights – when the news simply does not change.  The same recorded report follows the identical studio intro.  Hour after hour.  On these occasions the only recourse is on-line Sudoku, or any other distraction available on the serious-looking laptop on the presenter’s desk.  It is always mildly diverting, when you take over the warm presenter’s chair, to see what one’s predecessor has been up to.  The browsing history usually betrays hours spent surfing, or online car crash games.  More suspicious is the browsing history of one colleague; shortly before leaving the studio, he deletes it.  There is almost certainly an innocent explanation for this.

I always loved the news.  I remember as a six year old being frustrated that my arms were not quite long enough fully to open The Times, where my father was Defence Correspondent.  The chimes of Big Ben, or the Greenwich pips from the always-on radio were a welcome punctuation to the day, with the promise of disasters in far-off countries, the death of a film star, the latest threat of nuclear extinction in the terrifying, drab years of the Cold War. 

But reading the stuff, being inside the news machine, dimmed that love affair.  It became ever clearer that what I was reading, watching or listening to was, for the most part, not the news at all.  It was comment, speculation, analysis –  that infamous first draft of history – but, bar the odd terrorist spectacular or plane crash, not really news at all.

An audit of most news programmes would reveal that most of the news hadn’t actually happened yet.  How is the President going to react?  Will the strike actually go ahead?  And just how significant would that be?  All of this conducted by the High Priesthood of the Commentariat, in a code which then has to be decrypted by other acolytes;  typically, some hapless minister is interrogated on some aspect of policy (which, under the rules, he has to defend to the hilt, for fear of betraying signs of U-turns, policy wobbles, splits or anything that might smack of intelligent re-assessment).  Then the presenter turns to the political correspondent to examine the steaming entrails of the interview, dissecting the nuances of how this policy is now of ‘great’ importance rather than ‘paramount’ importance, as it was two days ago.  While all over the land, the nation rolls over in bed and switches off the light, or the radio, or both -  depending on the time of day.

And the terrible truth is this:  No One Knows Anything. Until it Has Happened. The global financial crash of 2007 has been analysed to death in hindsight – its causes, its fallout, the failures in the system, those responsible, new structures to prevent a new debacle.  But for the news fraternity, it seems to have come out of the blue.  And if some wise heads always saw it coming, they didn’t see fit to tell the rest of us.  9/11 produced an avalanche of comment and an eternity of analysis. But if Osama bin Laden was such a significant player, why hadn’t we heard of him before?

Rolling news, and my own small part in it, have helped to devalue the currency of the very thing it trades in.  The truth is that there may not be enough real news to fill the 24-hour cycle; or if there is, we’re too busy feeding the machine to find it out.

© David Jessel 2011

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