Newsround: Britain’s least Craven news show

Media coverage of the disappearance of Madeleine McCann has been full of innuendo and even xenophobia. Except on one children's show.

Patrick West

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With Madeleine McCann’s disappearance approaching its 100th day, and with new evidence having surfaced this week, it seems the print and television media are becoming less reserved about mentioning who they have always palpably insinuated – but never overtly stated – was responsible for the poor toddler’s vanishing. I think we all know who I am talking about.

The coverage of this episode has been lurid in its reportage of the blood found in the Portuguese apartment where Madeleine was last seen, irrational in its casual acceptance of phantom ‘steal to order’ international paedophile rings, and actually ridiculous in the ubiquitous exhortations by cynical newspapers for EVERYONE to do EVERYTHING to look for Maddy. The coverage has at times veered on xenophobic and even racist, with accusations that the Portuguese and their police force are natural imbeciles, and innuendo that blonde-haired Maddy may have been abducted by swarthy North Africans who lust after Aryan babies.

It seems odd that Britain, a country that now openly vilifies its youth as either violent and dangerous adolescents or spoilt, needy infants, should ostensibly display such sentimentality about Madeleine. I was wondering this week what other children have thought about the whole affair, and, indeed, how the story was being relayed to them. A natural port of call was the long-running BBC news programme aimed specifically at children: Newsround.

Originally entitled John Craven’s Newsround, this 10-minute bulletin has been a regular late afternoon feature on BBC1 for 35 years now, and it was the agent that awoke my eyes to the real world. The first political event I remember, Bobby Sands’ hunger strike in 1981, was brought to my attention by John Craven, and I remember avidly following the Falklands War a year later via the programme (although, for a seven-year-old who used to watch the D-Day film The Longest Day practically every day, I did think the Falklands conflict was disappointingly free of epic battles).

Newsround was truly Reithian, fulfilling the BBC’s remit to educate and inform. Logically, however, it shouldn’t have worked: children are generally interested in fantasy, not fact. Children are also easily upset by death, so why would they want to hear about aircraft hijackings or bloodshed in Northern Ireland? And after all, John Craven, who wore a suit and tie and sat behind a desk, did resemble a schoolmaster (younger readers may be interested to know that newsreaders didn’t always used to dress casually and stroll around the studio in front of giant screens).

But the BBC was astute. On a prosaic level, it scheduled the programme alongside such favourites as Grange Hill and Record Breakers. As far as the show itself was concerned, the BBC would invariably lure in female and male viewers with their two respective favourite topics: animals and astronauts. Some may accuse me of gender essentialism, but girls and boys do like different things: girls are concerned with the environment and fluffy animals and boys like stories about spaceships and Argentinean fighter planes being shot down over Goose Green. In my day, the usual fare consisted of pandas in Beijing being unable to procreate and the nascent Space Shuttle programme. And this successful formula has not changed. When I tuned in this Wednesday, two items happened to be about the feared extinction of the Yangtze river dolphin and a story about a teacher going into space.

Newsround also addressed issues that directly affected its audience, such as bullying, pocket money, school dinners and school uniforms. Curiously, it also succeeded in attracting an adult audience. Before the days of rolling news, and when the BBC had no bulletin between lunchtime and 5.45pm, Newsround broke the news of the attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II in 1981. The Challenger disaster of 1986 was another of its exclusives.

Newsround‘s real strength, however, was that it relayed stories in a simple manner free of hyperbole. Naturally, it didn’t want to make stories too intricate for young minds, and its policy of removing violent shots from, say, the invasion of Lebanon, or omitting the gratuitous details behind the arrest of Peter Sutcliffe, was less out of a desire to avoid sensationalism, and more to avoid alarming or upsetting younger viewers. Childish and simplistic, perhaps, but today, with so many news channels in competition with each other, and with the internet consequently resorting to overstatement (everything is now ‘breaking news’ – a tautology if ever there was one), in retrospect it seems refreshing to have had a news programme that just told you the news.

Newsround could, of course, be patronising, and it still can be. It recently informed viewers that ‘Chechens are from Chechnya’ and ran a banner that read: ‘David Tennant: The 10th Doctor, he is the Tenth Person to play Doctor Who.’ But when you start feeling you are being patronised by Newsround, it really is time to start watching the grown-up news.

The contrast between the coverage of Maddy’s disappearance on Newsround and the grown-up news has not been particularly stark, but Newsround seems to have dignified itself by keeping it simple and free of overstatement. On Wednesday we were reminded of the details behind the Maddy story: that there had been a search after she vanished, that there were traces of what was thought to be blood in the apartment that her family had been staying in, that experts want to know if it really is blood, and if it is, if it is Madeleine’s, and that her parents stated that they were still optimistic that she would come home. There was nothing about ‘international paedophile rings’, no hysteria, no xenophobia, no innuendo – just the established facts. And, shamefully, it took Newsround to remind us that this kind of thing is actually very rare.

Patrick West is spiked’s TV columnist.

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