All the news that isn’t news
The Irish Times front page of 25 May 1972 led with an announcement in the Dáil by the Minister for Justice, Desmond O’Malley that the Government was preparing legislation to allow the introduction of special juryless criminal courts — a response to the escalating violence of the Troubles. The special courts were indeed introduced and remain in operation, still a modest bone of political contention.
The second lead story has even more contemporary resonance. This was the announcement by the Electricity Supply Board (ESB) of the third rise in electricity prices in 15 months. An ESB spokesperson said that the average domestic consumer paid £25 (€32) for electricity per year and that the rise would amount to no more than 5p (6 cent) per week. At that time, The Irish Times itself sold for the equivalent of 5 cent. Those were the days, my friends!
Turning to the television listings for the day, several observations. First, there were only four channels: RTE, ITV (UTV or Harlech), BBC1 and BBC2. Living in Dublin, we had all four channels at home. But most viewers in Ireland had access only to RTE. Second, apart from educational programmes on the two BBC channels in the morning, British television didn’t come on the air until lunchtime and RTE remained off air until 5.35 pm. All stations closed down around midnight. A third feature is the comparative austerity of the listings. There are no accompanying pictures and no more than a couple of lines describing what programmes are about, sometimes nothing at all. And the last point is the scarcity of “news” bulletins.
RTE gave us five minutes of “news headlines” after the Angelus at 6 pm., ten minutes for An Nuacht (news in Irish) just before 8 pm. and all of 20 minutes for the day’s main bulletin at 9.30 pm. Britain’s flagship, BBC 1 was little different. Of national (i.e., UK and international) news, it offered five minutes at lunchtime, 10 minutes at tea time and twenty minutes for the main evening news at 9 pm. BBC 1 also gave fifteen minutes of regional news at 6 pm. Continuous “rolling” news on television was unheard of. CNN started broadcasting in 1980.
News on radio was equally light. Morning Ireland began on RTE Radio only in 1984. In 1972, RTE ran the only radio channel, Radio Eireann. It came on the air at 7.30 am, offering music interspersed with regular news headlines, all the way to 11 am when wordy radio took over for an hour. Its “flagship” news was a half hour at 1.30 pm. The station was back in bed before midnight. Honourable mention is due to the newly established Radio na Gaeltachta which broadcast for two hours each evening.
The internet was still two decades away.
I am, sadly, old enough to have a decent if not entirely reliable memory of how television news came across to the viewer in those bygone days.
First, it was delivered by a single newsreader, always male. And “newsreader” was the appropriate term. Most of the bulletin comprised the newsreader’s face reading solemnly from a script direct to camera. He read. We listened. It was like a radio broadcast, except it was on television. There was some pictorial content, but not a lot, mainly domestic and, unless I am very much mistaken, little or none of it was live.
Second, it was “news” in the strict sense, telling us about actual events that had happened in Ireland and that dim and distant place: abroad.
Third, what we saw and heard was accepted as authoritative. Most of us took newsreaders’ accounts of what happened; when, where, how and why, as reliable gospel.
As a generalisation, I suggest that the RTE News, whether on television or radio, was something that people felt they should catch daily. Watching or listening to the news was thus primarily something of a civic duty to keep in touch.
If the News then was monochrome, worthy and dull, today’s news world is a cacophony, a riotous bombardment of psychedelic colour and noise coming at us at speed from all sides as well as from above and below and all of the time. We consume news a la carte through several different media from lots of different sources, whenever and wherever we like, not at set times laid down for us between which there is nothing. So much more of it is live, immediate and pictorial regardless of how far away supposedly newsworthy things are happening. The world beyond Ireland is much more integral to what counts as news than formerly.
Television is only one source and RTE only one station among many.
In recent years, I watched television news only sporadically and not very deliberately until the arrival of the pandemic and associated “lockdowns” when my wife and I sat down to the RTE1’s 6.01 news routinely. That habit has survived the retreat of the pandemic, though the commitment is weakening. We rarely stay until the bitter end of the full hour, though we still normally stick with it at least until half way through.
Now, there are two newscasters (rather than newsreaders) and no shortage of women. But that doesn’t matter very much because the newscasters share the speaking with correspondents at home and abroad. Much, if not most, of the reporting by those correspondents is voiced over snippets of film and from somewhere other than the news studio.
That may hold our attention better, but I am not sure if the addition of film to voice reporting always adds to the sum of human knowledge, even if it is more diverting.
First, the vocal is always subordinate to the visual so the use of an image ties the story being told to the image being presented. For example, over many weeks we got a lot of updates on the situation in Mariupol, especially the continuing siege of the Azovstal steelworks accompanied by camera pans of the rubble which made for wrenching human interest “narrative”. But we got very little content on the overall status and direction of the war because it is hard to link that macro-situation neatly to any sequence of film.
The relevance of some of the film accompanying reports doesn’t survive cursory reflection. For example, does it add anything to political reporting that it is done from outside Leinster House rather than the studio, especially at week-ends when there isn’t a sinner to be found within our parliament buildings. The quality of trial reports is not improved by the reporter delivering them from the steps of the courthouse. It doesn’t add anything to the profundity of Northern Ireland pre-election crystal ballgazing that it is done in a brisk 10 minute canter along the banks of the Foyle rather than from a studio in Dublin. And it doesn’t add much either to our understanding of the war in Ukraine to watch a reporter speaking from Lviv in western Ukraine, when the reporter is in Lviv precisely because the war is some distance away. These “on location” reports make for better watching but not better learning.
Then there is the news content itself. It is no longer a list of actual events or occurrences reported neutrally and fully in the order of their relevance to our lives. There is some of that, but so much else as well that could fairly be described as verbal confetti.
For example, a lot of so-called news is generated by things public figures say not things that happen, sometimes accompanied by reaction to what has been said, more often than not the original comment and reaction being altogether unsurprising. Sometimes what important people say can be news — if it is a genuine, previously untrailed announcement of serious public importance. But, more often, what the news reports is comment, not actuyal developments.
Then there is “news” generated by lobby or interest groups on the back of, say, a report, an opinion poll or a press release, which is then used as the launch pad for a round of reaction. There are a lot of interest groups swarming especially around the hot button sectors of housing, health and education looking for the oxygen of airtime to promote themselves and their cause and to apply a hot poker to the Government’s rear, plenty of opposition spokespersons readily available to jab the same poker too. These organisations can line up case studies and interviewees, so the RTE reporter just has to turn up with camera and microphone rather than do any digging themselves. So-called “rows” are a staple of the news diet, though here today, they are gone tomorrow.
Next, there is lots of speculation about things that could happen.
This falls into two categories. The less frothy, but nonetheless irritating is a “report” of something that probably will happen but for which no source can be cited because of the “etiquette” of modern “journalism”. So-called news is built on the sandy foundations of such lead-ins as “It is thought…”, “There is speculation that….”, “the Government may…”, based on deliberate unattributable briefings fed to the reporter. That stuff probably will happen, but is never a surprise.
The frothy kind of speculation is simply that: “pure” speculation. Annual inflation could rise to 10%, or more mealy-mouthed still “by up to 10%”. Marine LePen could win the French election. Vladimir Putin could deploy nuclear weapons in Ukraine. This stuff is normally intended to inject panic into the viewers. However bad things are for us now, and they are never better than tentatively okay, there is always scope for them to become worse.
To be fair, such statements are rarely presented as “straight news” but often arise in exchanges within the news between the newscasters and RTE correspondents or external experts. Reminding us frequently that almost anything is theoretically possible is not an important public service — especially when the preponderance of such speculation surrounds things more likely to concern or disturb us than comfort and calm us.
A short interview with a person in the news is a fixed feature of the bulletin, coming immediately after the first of two advertisement breaks. Sometimes those interviews are strictly informational and, therefore, straightforwardly useful. Sometimes, they are a prosecutorial grilling, less concerned about eliciting information than demonstrating that the interviewee is a shifty shyster and the interviewing newscaster a forensic interrogator defending the public interest.
The most notable recent example of the latter was David McCullagh’s interview with the Russian Ambassador on the evening after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. This took the theatre to a new level of intensity as Mr. McCullagh was clearly concerned to dump the collective outrage and indignation of the Irish people onto the Ambassador. The normally polite and courteous presenter ranted and railed at his unfortunate victim who barely got a word in. There is nothing inherently wrong with that, but let’s call it the fireworks that it is, not “news”.
The interviewer invariably signals to the interviewee that the interview is over with “Thanks indeed.” The latter word is as meaningless as it is superfluous. I mention that as a small example of how much of the programme is “rote” or broadcasting as painting by numbers. It is a challenge for any daily media production, whether televisual, aural or print, to be simultaneously cosily familiar but also altogether fresh and different to its predecessor of the day before. RTE news rarely rises to the challenge. It needs to shuffle its presentational deck of cards more.
That David McCullagh interview was an especially vivid demonstration that television “news” is about projecting narratives or stories, not conveying incontrovertible and relevant truths. Russia v Ukraine is an archetypal “goodies and baddies”, “cops and robbers” or “cowboys and injuns” story. The News is not about cultivating our minds, but clutching and holding on to our emotional and attitudinal receptors, normally those that encourage us to believe that we have more about which to be fearful and disgruntled, mad as hell even, than we have to be relaxed and cheerful. Though there is generally one “cheerful” item late in the bulletin to dial down the tone, we must first be put through the wringer of chaos.
The whole thing is intensified by the dramatic opening, clipped headlines delivered over resounding repetitive music, the same headlines repeated over the same music at the beginning of the second and third segments of the programmes and the frequent repetition of the stories that are “still to come”, with the implied instruction to wait for them at the risk otherwise of missing out on something vitally important.
I am not saying that RTE news conveys the substance of “stories” untruthfully. And it is still occasionally, especially for people less attuned to the internet, a source of useful new information. Nor is RTE unique. I sometimes listen to and watch BBC “news” and it is equally breathless and frothily insubstantial.
But it is hard to argue that its injection of breathless drama and significance into everyday “stories” that can’t bear the weight reinforces its credentials as an authoritative and trustworthy information delivery service. Too many stories of heroes and villains, triumphs and tragedies, agony and ecstasy, wring our emotions dry but teach us little.
What RTE are really trying to create every evening is a “public square” of sorts, but not a forum for communicating information that is relevant to the entire nation. Rather it is an attempted national emotional group hug, ironically a wistful harking back to the era when RTE was the sole broadcaster and the automatic communicative hub or hearth within our homes.
That is especially evident when it comes to the “gold dust” of today’s news, sudden death and especially sudden death through homicide. With so much of its news being pre-cooked, the genuinely unforeseen event, especially a “tragic” one is a rare jewel.
So, in recent months we saw newscasters decamp to Sligo and Tullamore and last week saw the station’s US correspondent go to Uvalde to report from “on the ground”. And no cliché is left unspurned in the reporting. “The small, tightly knit community of X is in deep shock. They never thought such dreadful things could happen here”, and so on. Sitting in our homes, we are afforded a prominent place in the front pew of national mourning — and allowed to enjoy the relief that it hasn’t happened to us mingled with the fear that it could so easily hit us next.
But, in the modern age, what else is RTE to do? If Ireland today were cerebral Athens in the time of Plato, one might suggest that each evening news bulletin comprise mainly an in-depth analysis of a single major strategic issue of relevance over a horizon greater than the next 24 hours, fronted by knowledgeable talking heads using imagery strictly as a tool attuned to the subject of presentation or discussion that would be strictly grounded in unimpeachable facts. While that would be more informative and educational, in today’s febrile, fickle world, it would lose the audience well before the first ad break.
Proof of the perverse success of the existing model is that I will continue to tune in to the bulletin most days even if I have to be restrained from throwing the remote control at the screen more often than is healthy for the television or for me!