Machell's Guide

Machell’s Guide to Surviving Modern Life IX: Making the News Bearable

BY Octavius Machell | MachellsGuide   /  11 January 2018


Things either happen or don’t happen. If they don’t happen, talking about them as happenings would be fiction. If they do happen, the question is whether the average citizen deserves to be informed that they have happened or not. If they do so deserve, welcome to the World of News. But this once modest enclave of the media has become confused: it wants to be playful, to be sexy, to be your friend. Newsreaders feel they are stars, newspaper editors feel they are statesmen, and news ‘consumers’ feel more bemused by the day. So, here’s some simple-as-salt rules to steer news back to the straight and narrow.

  1. Newsreaders, stop standing up and flouncing about like fish out of water, clutching in your hapless fins a password-protected tablet on stand-by. Just sit down, focus, and read the news.

2. Alternate every three pieces of normal, i.e. depressing, news, with an upbeat account of something good happening – or even existing – in the world. A single half-column in print, or 30 seconds in broadcast, will do the job nicely. There are causes for meliorism, if not optimism!

3. Don’t deliver a piece to camera on event X while event X is still unfolding behind you. It’s not only a mockery of the use of the preterite tense (yes, when the story goes out event X will indeed be in the past but it is real and present when you’re giving the report). It’s also condescending to the viewer and offensive to the poor folk around you actually experiencing the event live. And don’t say something that has a poignancy value of – at most – two seconds’ thought, and then saunter sage-like off camera. Where are you going? And why does the cameraman not care?

4. No paper should allow a comment writer to produce more than two pieces a week. Apply the pub bore rule: would you head out to an establishment if you knew that, on more than two nights a week, the same bloke would be declaiming to the rest of the pubabout how the world should be? Probs not.

5. A simple one: limit the reporting of news to the reporting of news. I’m not talking about this ‘fake news’ bilge that – desperately – has itself become meta-news, I mean those self-satisfied reflections on people, their daily travails and their native identity. A few scattered observations about right-on causes do not amount to news. The BBC, in particular, is getting carried away here: if it wants to represent the totality of its fee-paying clientele, why not create for each licence payer – once a decade – a 30-second bespoke micro-documentary on that person or a subject of their choice? If everyone matters, everyone matters.

6. Ban 24-hour news. Yes, these channels can continue to run for 24-hours but on a strict cycle: 15 mins of news on the hour, followed by a 45-minute documentary of topical or timeless interest. Breaking stories can run as occasional banners along the bottom. Things of interest do not happen every minute.

7. If there’s an important story on a large and complex subject, put effort into contextual explainers of the issue and its history, starting from the basics and progressing to the necessary technicality. Every news broadcast should have at least five minutes of fact-filled context.

8. Newspapers, yes, you need advertisement revenue to stay afloat. But have some self-respect: don’t run adverts that pose as curiously-product-specific articles, under the tiniest label of ‘Advertisement’; don’t hide you whole ruddy paper inside a trompe-l’œilwrap-around; and don’t end every single articleonline with a cap-in-hand plea for charitable donations from readers. Seek to produce a paper that can run itself without offending those who patronise it.

9. Replace all televised ‘breakfast news’ with vintage episodes of Jackanory. It’s all people can face of a morning.

10. Newspapers, stop with this ‘Collect 20 cuttings for a free vegetable’ malarkey. The 21stcentury requires more from you. For instance, we live in a world of ever-more experimental currencies. Why not bring newspapers into this sector? A tentative move has been made by The Daily Telegraph, which serves as currency to purchase bottled water, albeit within the rather circumscribed and challenging territorial realm of W.H. Smith. Let’s see the FTsecure free Tube travel, The Sun free pork scratchings, and The Guardian free copies of The Spectator.

11. End the whole sorry world of vox pops. Whether it’s a technical change to British economic policy, or news of heightening military tensions overseas, I don’t feel the need to take the pulse of Harlow’s shopping quarter. But this fad is getting worse: embedded tweets from anonymised non-entities are the ubiquitous digital reflection of the self-same clueless broadcasting. ‘Tell us, how does this make you feel?’ Bored and jaded.

12. When conducting a tv/radio interview, follow three rules: (i) ask short, direct questions; (ii) interrupt the interlocutor instantly when they digress from a direct answer to those questions; (iii) if they refuse to answer any question, give the stentorian riposte: ‘This is an interview and you are in a position of trust. Would you prefer to answer some basic questions or leave in panic?’

13. All news outlets: recommission portraits of the comment team every year, ideally by automatically harvesting shots from the Christmas party melee. Some reporters actually seem to be  getting younger, to judge by their increasingly optimistic thumbnails.

14. Reporters report. They will therefore need (i) facts to report or (ii) witnesses to interview. So only send them out into the real world when they will be able to achieve one of these goals; if they instead (iii) say nothing other than the barest bones of the story, don’t bother cutting from the studio for ‘the very latest’. Who wants to witness these poor souls flitting around like souls across the Styx, nothing to say and nothing to do, paralysed at once by impotence and ignorance?

15. Newspaper sellers, don’t stop producing a paper. Obvious one, this, and yet The Independent– once a great paper – couldn’t follow this entry-level instruction. And look at it now!