My former BBC colleague Michael Buerk recently lamented the “dumbing- down” of news coverage thanks to 24-hour news. It’s an opportune moment to look at the pluses and minuses of rolling news.
One change resulting from always-on-the-ground news coverage is that too many people feel a compulsion to get their faces on Sky News or News 24.
I recall one such instance when I was covering the bomb alerts around London for Sky News in the summer of 2007. Watching a ‘live’ from south London by a colleague, I noticed a man standing behind him – making sure he was within camera view. I thought: “Hang on, that same bloke was behind me when I did a piece-to camera last week in north London”. Clearly, we now have Sky News stalkers out there!
More seriously, anybody and everybody now feels compelled to be seen and/or heard, no matter how irrelevant or marginal their role might be. After a court case ends, every conceivable ‘agency’ has to have their say on camera outside the court. The police superintendent who in 2008 helped convict Karen Mathews for the kidnapping and imprisonment of her daughter was later criticised for describing her as “pure evil” outside the court. Too often we seem to have a second trial, live on 24-hour news, after the court has dispensed justice.
There’s also the risk that the presence of news cameras might, in itself, trigger a story. One of the first lessons I had drilled into me as a rooky BBC reporter in Northern Ireland was: “You don’t get the camera out of the car until the riot starts”. What used to apply back then on the Falls or the Shankill is now perhaps not so sacrosanct , with cameras often on standby somewhere in the Arab world in case of violence after ‘Friday prayers’.
The role of reporter has also changed. Some never seem to leave their office/feed point/hotel room – such are the hourly/half-hourly demands upon them.
Tuning into 24-hour news, the viewer might obtain a contorted view of the day’s news. A live news conference about a police raid might be top-of-the-hour at 1100 but has disappeared from the running-order by tea time as no-one’s been arrested.
Overall, though, the above reservations are eclipsed by the much greater transparency that 24-hour news has afforded viewers – on two levels.
Firstly, viewers are now exposed to the whole newsgathering process as never before. They are witness to the entire wing-and-a-prayer/fingers crossed/on-the-hoof process that accompanies a lot of news coverage. The viewer is almost sitting in the newsroom, observing how the news is pulled in and put out.
Secondly, let’s be honest – 24-hour news can be gripping. Would we have wanted to miss Adam Boulton’s clash with Alistair Campbell as the coalition was being formed, or live coverage of the Chilean miners’ rescue?
The truth is that rolling news and the set news bulletin can co-exist comfortably.
There’s still a place for the skilfully-crafted package in the stand-alone news bulletin – like those on the eurozone crisis from the BBC’s Gavin Hewitt or from Jeremy Bowen in Libya.
At the same time, I was gripped by the live coverage provided by Sky’s Alex Crawford, her cameraman and producer as they entered Tripoli on the back of a rebel truck, with all her communications equipment being powered from the vehicle’s cigarette-lighter. We never had that before 24-hour news.