VISUAL IMAGERY IN THE MASS MEDIA -
Whose Pictures? is my subject this afternoon. And I'd like to begin where I intend to stay all afternoon, in America. First, back in the first week of this New Year and the start of this year's race for the White House when the Democratic going was already getting tough and rough. Senator Obama, you'll remember had just won in the Iowa caucuses and Senator Clinton the firm favourite for so long was on her back foot.
Did the ladyweep? Was it a real lump in the throat that January day in New Hampshire? Here was one of the most memorable television images in the early stages of this year's presidential campaign in the United States. 'I had this incredible moment of connection with the voters of New Hampshire and they saw it and they heard it. And they gave me this incredible victory last night,' said Hillary Clinton during an interview with CBS after she'd won the New Hampshire Democratic Primary. The story in The Times online continued, 'Analysis of exit polls from New Hampshire showed that women voters, traditionally [Senator Clinton's] most loyal supporters, flooded back after deserting her for Barack Obama in last week's Iowa caucuses. Mr Obama narrowly edged Mrs Clinton for the female vote in Iowa primary last week but yesterday she enjoyed a clear 13-point lead.'
The implication is clear. A discreetly moist eye, a beat in the voice all planned and perfectly performed for the camera. A perfectly judged political tactic and a great performance by the now leading lady. Before long the columnists were banging at the dressing room door. This is India Knight in The Times within a week of the alleged weeping. '...you wouldn't have to be the world's greatest cynic to think, cut it out, Miss Pants on Fire. You are crying for yourself, which you're perfectly entitled to do, and for your apparently doomed ambition. You are not crying for America. It was also noticeable that she inclined her head slightly towards the camera just before she welled up.'
Sisterly solidarity was even less in evidence in the Guardian on January 10th, a day after the celebrated scene in a Coffee Shop in Portsmouth, New Hampshire when Germaine Greer declared that, 'Watching Hillary Clinton pretending to get teary-eyed is enough to make me give up shedding tears altogether... Hillary's feeble display of emotion, while answering questions from voters... is supposed to have done her campaign the world of good. If it has, it's because people have wished a tear into her stony reptilian eye, not because there actually was one. What caused her to get all mooshy was her mention of her own love of her country. Patriotism has once more proved a valuable last refuge for a scoundrel.'
But why shouldn't Senator Clinton's damp eyed patriotism have been genuine? And even if it was contrived is that such a crime? It clearly moved the women voters of New Hampshire, which I might remind you describes itself as the Granite State. So even the stones can weep in America?
More seriously, what we have here is evidence of the fault line that seems to run through television news on both sides of the Atlantic. An educated minority decry it as at best a series of simplifications and at worst downright distortion, while the majority continue to enjoy it and when polled declare that television is their primary source of news about the world. (MORI, 1990). The minority complain that television news is led by pictures, that pictures are incapable of carrying an argument, that images are just that, an image of the truth not the thing itself. Yet this is precisely what seems to appeal to the rest of us. We want to see the news and we're willing to go along with those old tropes, that 'seeing is believing' and 'a picture is worth a thousand words.' But whose pictures are they? Who picks them? And how are they put together? These are my themes this afternoon.
But back to the liberal intelligentsia's anxieties about television news, I am reminded of anecdote - it's possibly an newsroom urban myth - that the American Edwin Diamond recounts in his book The Tin Kazoo: Television, Politics and News [1975 - MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass - Pxi]. Diamond writes. 'I'm going to tell you a story and after I tell it, you will know all there is to know about television news - The executives of this station [in New York] were watching all three [network] news shows one night. There had been a fire in a Roman Catholic orphanage on Staten Island. One executive complained that a rival station had better film coverage. 'Their flames are higher than ours', he said. But another countered: 'Yes, but our nuns are crying harder that theirs.'
And there you have the case for the prosecution. The Australian John Langer elegantly summarises it under six heads in his book Tabloid Television: Popular Journalism and Other News [Routledge 1998 - ISBN 0-415-06637-9 (Pbk) - P1].
- Television news is primarily a commodity enterprise run by market-oriented managers who place outflanking the 'competition' above journalistic responsibility and integrity
- Television news is in the business of entertainment, like any other television product, attempting to pull audiences for commercial not journalistic reasons
- Television news has set aside the values of professional journalism in order to indulge in the presentation of gratuitous spectacles
- Television news is overly dependent on filmed images which create superficiality and lack information content
- Television news traffics in trivialities and deals in dubious emotionalism
- Television news is exploitative
Here, as John Langer notes, is the lament of those who distrust the mass media and popular culture. This is the cry of the English intellectual so elegantly skewered in Professor John Carey's book Intellectuals and the Masses: Pride and Prejudice Among the Literary Intelligentsia, 1800-1939[Faber - Paperback, 1992]. Carey always a rapier sharp polemicist in print and whom one of his ex-students described as 'Oscar Wilde with Jackboots on' maps out the contempt the makers of modern literature had for mass culture. But was it the culture or the mass they feared? As Kevin Williams writes in Get me a Murder a Day! - A History of Mass Communication in Britain [Arnold. 2003 - ISBN 0340614668 PB P2] 'The history of mass communication is in one sense a history of the fear of the masses.'
In this version of the world the chief crime to be laid at the door of television news is that it panders to popular taste. And for popular read uneducated and so ignorant. Television news has failed to inform us about the inner workings of liberal democracy, has abdicated its responsibility to educate us into citizenship and simply sought to entertain us. And even worse, it has pursued gratuitous spectacle rather than espousing the 'values of professional journalism'. It 'traffics in trivialities and deals in dubious emotionalism'. And above all, says Williams, 'Television news is overly dependent on filmed images which create superficiality and lack information content'.
This is not the place to replay that ancient argument that British high culture prizes the word over the image, that Jane Austen is valued more than Turner, that T.S.Eliot is held in greater esteem than David Bomberg or Wyndham Lewis. But a medium that depends on images rather than words for its appeal and often its effect too is perhaps unlikely to appeal to the British intellectual.
And it doesn't help that television news has its roots in the popular newspapers of the nineteenth century. Both the radical papers of the early part of the century and Lord Northcliffe's popular press at the other end as the Victorian shades into Edwardian, the phenomenally successful Daily Mail in particular, which had learnt its lessons well from the penny newspapers with their tales if murder, mayhem and revenge. So in the 1830s Henry Hetherington, the editor of the Poor Man's Guardian could write that 'It is the cause of the rabble that we advocate, the poor, the suffering, the industrious, the productive classes - we will teach this rabble their power - we will each them that they are your master instead of being your slave.' [Kevin Williams - Get me a Murder a Day! - A History of Mass Communication in Britain- Arnold. 2003 - ISBN 0340614668 PB P37] While sixty years later Northcliffe was supposed to have coined the Mail's motto 'Get me a murder a day'.
If popular newspapers are one of the godparents to television news, the other is clearly the cinema newsreels, just as suspect in the eyes of British intellectuals and as much, perhaps, for their politics as the strident way in which they crowed the news each week before the feature film. Pathe, Movietone and the rest of them established a very particular style of news reporting in which pictures led and the words tried not to tread on their feet. We know too that in the 1930s British film producers worked hand in glove with the British Board of Film Censors [Jeffrey Richards -The Age of the Dream Palace - Routledge 1984 ISBN:0710097646 P122-124] and that the censors were working with the government of the day. So Alfred Hitchcock's sharp little thriller The Lady Vanishes, scripted by Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliatthad to make sure that the nasty politics that accompanied the Lady's disappearance in the film was located in a never-never land-Ruritania as far removed from Hitler's Germany and Mussolini's Italy as was visually possible. As for the newsreels, as soon as Britain declared itself neutral in the matter of the Spanish Civil War the newsreels, deferring to British Foreign policy, never really mentioned Spain again, despite the fact that there were British men and women fighting for the Republic and dying at Jarama, in Teruel and along the Ebro Valley. For intellectuals on the political Left, and most of them were in that 'Devil's Decade', here was clear evidence that the ruling elite were manipulating the mass media for their own political purposes. The cinema and newsreels were not to be trusted to 'tell the truth'. So when we come to consider the low opinion many educated Britons have of television news it's perhaps worth remembering that BBC Television's earliest version of the news was called BBC Television Newsreel.
From this perspective, very much de haut en bas, television news can be regarded as the bastard child fathered by Wardour Street, London home to British cinema on Northcliffe's Daily Mail.
John Langer's critique of television news is of programmes produced and consumed in Australia, his own territory, and the United States. But before we congratulate ourselves on a world of television news made safer for consumption in the United Kingdom by the traditions of public service broadcasting, let me remind you what the Glasgow University Media group wrote back in 1976 '... television news is a cultural artefact; it is a sequence of socially manufactured messages which carry many of the culturally dominant assumptions of our society. From the accents of the newscasters to the vocabulary of camera angles; from who gets on and what questions they are asked, via selection of stories to presentation of bulletins, the news is a highly mediated product.' [Glasgow University Media Group 1976:1].
So television news is either a vital agent of social and thus political control or a case of bread and circuses. In fact in the United Kingdom it's probably both. Or at the very least the bread is wholemeal and organic and the circus has banished the performing animals and is keeping the clowns under strict control.
But who has banished the lions and the elephants and who has chosen the acts that are allowed into the ring? For the remainder of my time this afternoon I want to explore the way in which a group that media theorists have christened the 'gatekeepers' are said to determine what we are shown as television news. I want also to consider how this news is often shaped around demographics, the audience for whom the news is intended. And firstly, I'd like to unpack some of the meanings wrapped up in that ubiquitous phrase - a news story'. And, you'll probably be relieved to know that there will at last be pictures as well as words for the rest of my lecture. I'm going to try to support my arguments and readings of television news with examples drawn from just one evening of news viewing. Three programmes: the ITV news at 6.30, Channel 4 News that same evening and BBC-1's Ten O'clock News. They were recorded on September 6th 2005, just nine days after Hurricane Katrina had devastated the coastal area of the United States along the Gulf of Mexico with the city of New Orleans being the community worst affected by this natural disaster.
But first a little personal history. My own television career began at the BBC in August 1969. I had been taken on as a researcher for a programme called 'The Philpott File', a documentary series in which Trevor Philpott, who had cut his journalistic teeth on Picture Post and gone on to become one of the team of reporters on the Tonight programme wrote and presented an annual series of fifty minute documentary films about anything that took his fancy. My first task was to begin researching two programmes on the plight of our inner cities and the attempts at urban renewal that were being made in the late 1960s. So I began where I had been taught to begin at University, with books. Piles and piles of them about the collapse of the inner city, the middle class flight to the suburbs, the need for strategic planning, architectural visions of new cities to built on the hill and so on. I compiled a comprehensive and massive digest of my reading and smug as sixpence I delivered it to Trevor Philpott and his producer waiting for a pat on the back if not a laurel wreath. Silence. More silence. And then a summons to the presence. 'Where and who are we filming', said the producer. 'What's the story', said Philpott. This was brutal introduction to what still seem to me the twin priorities of factual television, the logistics, which usually means the budget, and shaping the material into a coherent narrative.
With a little help I found the story. It was Liverpool, much used and abused by British television. And Philpott taught me what he regarded as the basic narrative trick of a fifty-minute film, the 'hiccough'. His word for the moment about thirty minutes into the film when you surprise the audience with an apparently arbitrary change of direction that in the fullness of time is revealed as the next chapter in the story. Our hiccough was a huge new housing estate that Liverpool had built outside the city boundaries in which they could resettle families from sub-standard housing in the inner parts of town. It was the old planning story of homes being built before community faculties like shops and pubs and churches and halls were in place, but the bit of the hiccough that Trevor Philpott most liked was that Liverpool having paid for this estate the income from it in the form of local taxes went to Lancashire County Council in whose bailiwick the estate was and not back to city itself.
The final programme was a perfectly decent piece of reportage but it had nothing at all to do with my original research. It was a story, a story of men and women and children living in Liverpool in the late 60s. Some in pretty awful circumstances, some in faded glory and some in brand new homes full of mod cons but miles from home and with nowhere to go. Did Philpott call the programme 'A Tale of Two Cities'? That's probably my imagination. But later when I had become his Assistant producer and we were making a programme in the newest of the Polders, the rich agricultural land that the Dutch have reclaimed from the sea to the West of Amsterdam, Philpott told me that the story ought to be about a very big farmer and a very small farmer. I was tempted to hunt down a grossly obese agriculturalist and a neighbour of severely diminished stature. But we stayed with the very wealthy and the not so rich. And for many in the audience I fear simplified a complex community.
Should you think that I am in danger of turning an anecdote into a general principle perhaps I can quote from what John Langer describes as 'the now fabled memorandum from an executive producer of the American National Broadcasting Company's news service. 'Every news story should - display the attributes of fiction or drama. It should have structure and conflict, problem and denouement, rising action and falling action, a beginning, a middle and an end. These are not only the essentials of drama; they are the essentials of narrative.' [Reuven Frank quoted in Edward Jay Epstein - News From Nowhere: Television and the News - Vintage Books, New York 1973 P4-5].
If television news provides us with our 'cognitive maps of reality' then the map is drawn according the narrative modes that are embedded in the traditions of Western storytelling, with beginnings and middles and ends, highs and lows and above all a resolution. 'Once upon a time...' must end with either 'And they lived happily ever after ' or 'And they all died'. Tragedy and comedy. We're all familiar with these basic stories, since we lisped them at our mother's knee as we learned to read. And they begin with those words and phrases that I have used to stereotype traditional Western fairytales.
But there are stories told by pictures too pictures, stories that are the backbone of popular cinema and by extension television too. Take a simple example from the earliest days of American cinema. Charlie Chaplin at the end of another misadventure walks off into the sunset or on his own with a jaunty swing of his cane, or if he's lucky into a sunset with a girl on his arm as the camera irises in to black nothingness and The End. In both cases the message is simple: 'tomorrow is another day' or 'And they were happy ever after'.
Now let's have a look at some news stories. At the news from September 6th 2005, nine days after Hurricane Katrina had devastated the coastal area of the United States along the Gulf of Mexico. At the ITV news at 6.30, Channel 4 News that same evening and BBC-1's Ten O'Clock News.
The aftermath of Katrina was the lead story in each of that evening's news programmes. In New Orleans itself they were still hunting for survivors and evacuating those they found alive. Work had begun on repairing the breached levees that kept this city built below sea level dry and pumping water out of the streets. In Washington and elsewhere they were arguing about who was to blame for the failure to respond to the disaster fast enough and effectively. This was the day that President George W Bush announced that he himself would head an enquiry into how Federal and local government in the United States had or more probably hadn't worked together in the first days after Katrina struck the Gulf States on August 29th.
Channel Four News put its distinguished presenter Jon Snow there on the ground, on a bridge over the water and an appropriately named Canal Street in the heart of what had been downtown New Orleans.
Channel 4 News
DVD Chapter Two
Jon Snow in New Orleans. And I've played his report at length because it seems to me that it's only then that you can make sense of the narrative. It starts at night with armed men patrolling the streets of down town New Orleans guarding against looting and ends in the evening sun with Tony and what's left of his life rescued from the waters. So we start with empty property and possessions and we end with - Unacommodated man? Shakespeare's 'poor, bare, forked animal' so christened by a King Lear who is slowly losing his wits in a storm on a wild heath. You might want to read this as a veiled editorial comment on American priorities in the midst of this natural disaster. First property and then humanity.
On reflection though, while I think my Shakespearean reference sounds the right emotional note for what we are shown on Channel 4, it's another story told almost exactly three hundred years later that informs my reading of Jon Snow's report. It's Joseph Conrad's novella Heart of Darkness, a journey along a black river of death into the heart of Africa by the Englishman Marlow in search of the notorious Kurtz. Snow's report is a journey with the camera almost always on the move across the floodwaters of New Orleans only pausing to find no one at home to the policemen or the armed men. When two are rescued by a helicopter crew we never see their faces though a line is plotted in the commentary about a white man rescuing a black survivor. We only meet our Mr Kurtz, the antithesis of Conrad's character, when Snow and his crew come across Tony. Notice too that having shared his personal 'heart of darkness' with us he wanders off into the evening sun, Chaplin's sunset, with the hope perhaps that he's rescued and tomorrow will indeed be another day. America may not be Conrad's 'Dark Continent', but it's still a strange place that needs mapping.
What is the journey narrative all about? First perhaps, it's the reporter as a detective, the investigator for truth. The images as we travel through the flooded city or past the detritus around the Convention Centre are designed to persuade us that we're uncovering the whole picture. The voice over hints at past mistakes in dealing with the disaster that must be revealed. Furthermore in this video report we the audience are often the eye of the camera, visually flattered into believing that it is us who are undertaking the investigation, everyone of us a Philip Marlow as much as Conrad's river captain Marlow. As well as the journey from property to humanity that I've already touched upon, the story is also a journey from potential disorder to order. That military patrol on their lorries guarding the streets against a criminal element to Tony restored to society. And in this respect it is, of course, Channel 4 News in collaboration with us the audience who have brought light to New Orleans' darkness.
This collaboration with the audience is something else that we should take note of. Self-evidently television programmes of all kinds are tailored around the supposed and sometimes measured needs of their audiences. Long gone are those brave Reithian days when the father of public service broadcasting himself could announce as if straight from the oracle's mouth at Delphi that 'Few listeners know what they want - and few know what they need.' And in this respect - and in many others as I shall be exploring in my third and final lecture - news programmes are not so very different from soaps, serial drama, mockumentaries and reality shows.
Channel 4 News says of itself that it 'has the youngest audience of any television news programme. Part of the appeal for younger audiences may be that it follows a self consciously progressive and inclusive agenda.' And for the most part the audience are likely to be drawn from social groups A B and C1 who, somewhat quaintly, are often referred to as 'upmarket.' So in part might they be said to share the scepticism about television as a news medium that I talked about at the beginning of this lecture? All the more reason then to devise a programme format that purports to offer them a collaborative partnership. This target audience may also explain the 'property to humanity' shape of the story and why at the very top of the programme, which I have spared you, Jon Snow began with the news that President Bush was to lead the investigation on the apparent breakdown between federal and local government services in the immediate aftermath of the Katrina disaster. For the Channel 4 audience this is above all a political story, and a story which at its end when we meet Tony also reminds us of the gulf between whites and blacks in the United States. Simon Hoggart in last Saturday's Guardian [Guardian 05-04-08 - p15] wrote, 'A wise American reporter based in London once told me that every British news story is, deep down, about class. Every American story, he said, is about race.' A useful generalisation.
If we look at the news on ITV, just half an hour before this Channel 4 News, the links between the target audience for the early evening news at 6.30 and the way which the programme reports the aftermath of Katrina is even clearer. Here's the lead story that September 6th evening 2005.
ITV News at 6.30
DVD Chapter One
In ITV's version of the disaster Katrina has become Suzette. It's human interest that leads and not the politics. Indeed Michael Chertoff, the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security with a direct responsibility for the Federal Government's response to the disaster since FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency who were supposed to coordinate that response reported directly to him... Michael Chertoff is actually embedded in the story of Suzette's rescue. This has all the hallmarks of a good tabloid story from the Daily Mail, the Daily Mirror or the Sun; the large and often complex picture of mopping up after the hurricane and indeed discovering what went wrong when Katrina struck playing second fiddle to a frightened black woman plucked to safety from the face of the waters. And you have to admit that the pictures are remarkable. I'm a speculating a little since the precise audience profile for ITV news is commercially sensitive information; but I would suppose that it's the same women - and men too perhaps - who read the Sun and the Mirror. Social groups C D and E. Should one therefore be surprised to find 'celebrities' reflecting on the situation in New Orleans later in the bulletin? The queen of American television Oprah Winfrey, Hollywood's Sean Penn and the former president Bill Clinton, rather than political commentators or elder statesmen or academics, share their perspectives on the disaster with an audience for whom celebrity is the prism through which their chosen media view most of modern life.
What strikes me about the images in ITV's lead story here is the strong contrast between Suzette and Michael Chertoff. She all alone holding onto her wheeled shopping bag for dear life as she is winched up into the helicopter in shorts and top, the bandana on her head blown away by wind raised by the rotor blades. And he pin neat in polo short and cargo pants and aviator shades leading his entourage out nonchalantly holding a bottle of mineral water as he detours to the camera. Then there is the 'good' Suzette, so gratefully hugging her rescuers and the 'bad' residents who won't do what they are told and hurl abuse from their front porch. This is surely a story that amply fulfils the requirements set out by that American television news executive that I quoted a while ago. It does indeed - have structure and conflict, problem and denouement, rising action and falling action, a beginning, a middle and an end.' [Reuven Frank quoted in Edward Jay Epstein - News From Nowhere: Television and the News - Vintage Books, New York 1973 P4-5].
After rescuing Suzette Walker, ITV gave its audience a round up of the rest of the Katrina news. And I like a moment to explore the visual narrative within which they embedded this second story of their bulletin.
ITV News at 6.30
DVD Chapter Two
Bill Neeley for ITV News on the ground in New Orleans on September 6th2005. Or mostly in the air with the helicopters. Jon Snow, you'll recall, travelled by boat across the water. Neeley it seems takes a top view and what we see is military hardware intercut with witnesses. Man and machine in a story structured around a version of 'dawn to dusk'. And it's the dusk that gives this report it's most telling image, helicopters flying across a deep red setting sun. And that's an image we've seen before.
Poster for Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now
It's the poster for Francis Ford Coppola's film about Vietnam Apocalypse Now, based as it happens on Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. I'll leave that coincidence undisturbed, though I do rather wonder whether ITN perhaps gave their staff Conrad's novella as a Christmas present in 2004. The war in Vietnam as fought again in the cinema and on television is a story about the United States defeated. And the subtext is usually that military might cannot guarantee victory. That final image in Bill Neeley's report from New Orleans links the Katrina disaster to the debacle in Vietnam. There's no need for a single pointed line in the commentary, it's those helicopters flying across a setting sun that talk of American impotence in the face of disaster. Then and now a nation armed with the most sophisticated weapons available is no match for disaster.
So who chose that image, and before that who decided to shoot the helicopters against the setting sun. Was it the ITN cameraman, was it the reporter Bill Neeley, was it the Producer back at ITN, was it a video editor. Without talking in some detail to all of these people and others to we can't know and in a way that's less important than the fact that someone made a choice about how to build the story out the available images and in doing so made an interpretation of what was happening in New Orleans that September in 2005.
Let me quote from the Professor Stuart Hall, formerly Director of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at Birmingham University. Hall is writing about still photographs but what he says seems to me to be equally applicable to moving pictures. This is what he says '... the choice of this moment of the event as against that, of this person rather than that, of this angle rather than any other, indeed the selection of this photographed incident to represent a whole complex chain of events and meanings, is a highly ideological procedure.' (Stuart Hall - The Determination of News Photographs from The Manufacture of News Eds S Cohen and J Young, Constable, 1973 P188).
Despite its aspiration to objectivity, or at least balance, television news is always partial. And nowhere more so when it comes to the choice of images and how they are edited together. So for ITV - for just one night it has to be said - the chaos that the hurricane Katrina brought to New Orleans and Washington's failure to respond in an effective manner to this disaster becomes a new version of Vietnam.
At the beginning of this lecture I talked about the concern felt by a vocal minority at what they think of as the failure of television news to fulfil it's social and civic duty. In the United States there has been no fiercer critic of how news is delivered by the mass media than Noam Chomsky. Chomsky, writes Brian McNair [News and Journalism in the UK - Routledge Fourth Ed 2003 - ISBN 0-415-30706-6 (Pbk) P71] - presents in quite a stark manner one of the central issues with which the sociology of journalism is concerned - the extent to which journalistic output is closed to alternative viewpoints, functioning in the interests of a political and economic elite and the extent to which, on the contrary, it is open to contesting, dissenting voices.'
And it is from Chomsky's work and that of others too that the notion is derived that news only reaches a television audience after it has passed through a sequence of 'gatekeepers'. Each of these so-called gatekeepers will have their own ideology, their own agenda; and this ideology or agenda inevitably, and invariably say some media theorists, inflects the way in which a particular programme reports, shoots, edits and transmits television news. So the Editor of the programme, the line producer, the reporter, the cameraman, the video editor - if there is one, the graphics designer and even the in-studio presenter may all play a part shaping the 'story' that is delivered to the audience.
Now you don't have to subscribe to Chomsky's gloomy idea that all television news is shaped to serve the best interests of a ruling elite who are only concerned with ensuring their own survival to recognise a good deal of common sense in this theory. Think about receiving e-mails from two friends who each tell you meeting the other for a drink or a meal. The words they use, the perspective from which they report the encounter even the pictures they take with their phone and conveniently attach will give a differently nuanced account of what happened. And we might add another gatekeeper to those I've just listed - the institution, the broadcaster in the case of television news.
It's time too talk about the BBC. 'To inform, educate and entertain' is the high-minded mantra that the Corporation chants when asked about its responsibilities as a Public Service broadcaster. But not always in that order, one might add. The BBC, like all broadcasters competing now in a multi-channel world, which is about to get even more multi when the switch to digital television takes place, knows that entertainment often has to take precedence over education and information. Or to put it another way the television licence fee can only be justified if everyone who pays it finds something to their taste in the Corporation's programming. And for the majority television is synonymous with entertainment. I would want to argue that this simple broadcasting reality shapes the kind of news programmes that the BBC makes, quite as much as it's commitment to a version of public service broadcasting. That we should expect the Ten o'clock News on BBC 1 to be attempting the impossible, that is trying to engage with an audience that comprises all social groups from A to E. Or to modify the forbidden line in All Things Bright and Beautiful, the hymn I quoted in my first lecture 'The rich man in his castle and the excluded family on their estate'.
How does it do it? In part by trading on its reputation and its brand. The brand is there in the title sequence, the urgent music throbbing like a heartbeat, the swirling red graphics that give us the BBC girdling the globe, the final image suggesting a listening ear. It's not news from London like ITV with Big Ben and the bongs or Channel 4's graphic jokes about the number 4 and cubes and even a hint of Microsoft Windows as a sequence of framed images leads us on into Jon Snow's lair with its laptops and PowerPoint presentation screen. This BBC is about grown up stuff. News from a world broadcaster sitting at the head of the top table. Godlike you may think, certainly monarch of all it surveys.
And when we get to Huw Edwards we seem to be not just in a newsroom but in a kind of Neo-Art Deco interior that is all curves and circles with no hard lines and painted in soothing pastel colours. Am I over reading this set, or does it echo the architectural style of Broadcasting House, a rare example outside and inside of British Art Deco and a building that seems synonymous with the Corporation's public identity. This was where the BBC's reputation was forged in the late 1920s and 1930's and on into the Second World War when it had a monopoly of all British broadcasting. Visually, its title sequence stamps the BBC's identity all over the Ten O'Clock News. Who can doubt who is the first gatekeeper?
And then? Well it might be interesting to see how on September 6th 2005, BBC News reported what was happening in New Orleans. Visually Jon Snow took a boat trip into a Heart of Darkness on Channel 4, on ITV Bill Neeley invoked Vietnam. And Matt Frei?
BBC-1 News at 10.00
DVD Chapter One
'Night has now fallen on a great modern city in a new dark age'. The USS Iwo Jima is described as a superpower toy. The conference centre is 'a monument to shame'. Here's writing that's packed with better images than the pictures themselves. They for the most part are the same as everybody else's except that Matt Frei's story goes from day to night not dawn to sunset and with no hint of Channel 4's 'tomorrow as another day' or ITV's twilight of the American Empire. And here's Frei himself in the middle of his story walking through the detritus that surrounds the Convention Centre neat in casual shirt and white trousers and moving a metal chair at table as if for all the word he was about to take a seat and order a cup of coffee.
This is unmistakeably an authored account of this day in New Orleans with the gatekeeper there on camera with his keys, so to speak, in full view. And unlike the other versions of this story that we've watched together it's the words that lead not the pictures. You almost feel that the script was written and then they went out to shoot the illustrations for it.
Why this style? Remember where I began this afternoon. I hope that you will forgive me if quote myself. I said, 'An educated minority decry [television news] as at best a series of simplifications and at worst downright distortion... [and this] minority complain that television news is led by pictures, that pictures are incapable of carrying an argument, that images are just that, an image of the truth not the thing itself.'
Is this perhaps an attempt to meet that criticism? To turn television news into a version of a newspaper where words lead and the image follows?
For all that the pictures are unmistakeably Matt Frei's owned by his words. So the answer here to the question at the head of this lecture is in this case the reporter. But let me draw your attention to something else about Matt Frei's report. Bill Neeley was out on the water with searchers looking for people still trapped in their homes; Jon Snow found Tony; and Matt Frei? A pair of policemen are his companions, Captain Bill and a Deputy Police Chief. Chomsky and the Glasgow University Media Group might want to argue that here is visual evidence of a broadcaster being on the side of authority or the establishment or those who have power. Maybe this does tell us something about who this news speaks for and who it speaks to with education leading from information, and entertainment very much an also ran. It's probably an overtidy final thought, but if BBC News educates, then maybe that on Channel 4 informs and ITV entertains. Thank you.
©Christopher Cook, Gresham College, 8 April 2008