TV UK, 10 May

TV news: 'Is it anything?'

Dolan Cummings

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Topics Politics

There is a halfway funny segment on Letterman at the moment called ‘Is this anything?’. Every night, some joker pulls off a stupid stunt; bouncing on a giant ball, juggling fire on stilts, or whatever, and Dave decides if it’s anything. Usually it isn’t.

I find the news similarly diverting these days. A baby is snatched from a hospital in the West Midlands, another suicide bomber blows up in Tel Aviv, a monkey is elected mayor of Hartlepool, a politician is assassinated in the Netherlands. Is any of this anything? It isn’t always easy to tell.

The first rule of TV news, and probably of news in general, is that everything is not only anything, but probably something. And if something is anything, it quickly becomes everything. So it was that the electoral good fortune of French joker Jean-Marie Le Pen, combined with the election of a few BNP clowns as pencil monitors in Burnley, was transformed into a resurgence of fascism in Europe.

It’s not that I want to make light of these events (not much), but if nothing is allowed not to matter, then the things that really do matter become obscured. In the absence of any solid clues about why Pim Fortuyn was killed, for example, news programmes have been content to squeeze that killing into the broader fascism story.

On the evening of the assassination, the BBC’s John Simpson returned to an interview he had done with Fortuyn a week earlier. ‘That sounds racist to me’, Simpson kept saying, terrier-like. What he missed is that Fortuyn was different from the old-fashioned racists, because he was motivated not by a belief in racial superiority, but by a fanatical belief in tolerance. Whatever the motivation of his assassin, that really is something, but not something the news seems able to process.

Perhaps the worst examples of poor judgement are the periodic updates from the ongoing ‘war’ on terrorism. Every new troop deployment in Afghanistan is dutifully reported as if it were a turning point in world history (even if the same thing happened a week ago with no apparent consequence), and every urchin picked up on the streets of Karachi is portrayed as a terrorist kingpin. The campaign is so detached from reality that news values have collapsed as surely as the twin towers.

What is news, what is something, in such a confused world? No wonder news editors are on the lookout for familiar stories. Fascism in Europe, intractable ethnic conflict in the Middle East, outpourings of grief for deceased royals. That’s everything, right? Or are they missing something?

I had the privilege on bank holiday Monday of watching last year’s inaugural World’s Strongest Woman competition (BBC1). The competitors were delighted to have won the right to lift cars, flip giant tyres and swing buckets of rubble. And the presenter John Inverdale was so keen on the equality story that it never seemed to occur to him to point out how stupid the World’s Strongest Man competition is.

Is this anything? Maybe, but probably not what you think.

Dolan Cummings is publications editor at the Institute of Ideas, and editor of Culture Wars. He is also the editor of Reality TV: How Real Is Real?, Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

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Topics Politics

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