Readers Advisory note: [The article below emerges from my Doctorate. (100,000 words). It is written in a form more associated with journalism story form, than academic construct, hence, I’m aware of its speed and style, and what academics may see as its over simplification.
The most powerful woman at the BBC had every reason to question what style she wanted to create for television news.
A new form of film communication was sweeping the Western world. Its progenitor John Grierson called it documentary. One of its main purposes was to make sense of the world’s fractured social change by documenting stories, it displayed a more threatening appearance to BBC Producer Grace Wyndham Goldie.
In the Land of Promise which charts the birth and movement of documentary Ian Aitken writes.
…far from hoping that the documentary film might serve to strengthen such a sense of identity around the existing political and cultural status quo Grierson hoped that the films of the documentary film movement would pursue an active social reform, and contribute to progressive social change.
Grierson, a canny PR-astute Scott, was riding high with his idea of a film form that was the antithesis of fictional cinema – whose industry was also going through change. The talkies were arriving.
Wyndham Goldie had other options. Notwithstanding the prevalence of Cinema newsreels, and how the BBC would borrow from the form for its first newscasts in 1948, newsreels provided a discursive foundation for BBC News. The same can be said of amateur filmmakers. Many were proficient, but the BBC would not go near them [read Prof. Brian Winston’s Claiming the Real].
It just wasn’t professional enough, plus the BBC in the 1950s wanted to exact its own internal standards, so it would devise its own Newsreel — much to the chagrin of Pathé News et al. It was a disaster.
However, it was the mass media form of cinema that was popular and could guarantee audiences. In British cinemas playing at that time were Westerns in John Ford’s Duel in the Sun, Noir in Double Indemnity and for British contributors Carol Reed’s Third Man and Jon Boulting’s Brighton Rock.
Reed’s Third Man and Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent featured a writer and journalist as their themes engaged in sleuthing and derring-dos. Hardly, anything near real-world journalism.
Welles came closest. The precocious Orson had captured a future of journalism in Citizen Kane from a fake newsreel produced in a cinema style of shot-continuity. But Orson’s vision would not do either. Cinema was too suggestive, even though the Italians were stripping it of its excesses in films like Pickpocket (1959), constructing their new realism ( Neorealism).
But as Wyndham Goldie writes in her autobiography, she was against the idea that one person’s (Grierson) unfettered truth in documentary making could not be challenged. And her bosses, notes Professor Steven Barnett at the University of Westminster, associated film with Hollywood movies. No, no. no it is fiction was the general riposte. Documentaries’ ambition to empower was simply unacceptable.
This was the crossroad that would irrevocably change the BBC and influence the world. Make no mistake, we are where we are today, because of decisions taken back then that convince us these conventions are the norm. They are not. They are practices suitable for their times.
By way of a contemporary analogy take MTV. Why was it so radical and music videos so inventive when it first launched? Answer: MTV did not hire anyone in its making who had television experience, according to Rob Tannebaum and Craig Marks behind MTV’s seminal history: I Want My MTV.
Another thought. Why does a reporter only have one cameraman/woman, when in the movies there are a multitude of cameras at work? Television News, the new pretender in the late 1940s wasn’t given a cat’s tail of a chance at succeeding, so execs threw as little resources at it as possible. Today, the legacy is still one reporter- one camera woman/ man.
Television News as Documentary?
When Hitchcock calls Grierson a great cinema maker in Scottish Television’s 1965 production , it is not by accident. For Grierson’s films such as The Heart of Scotland were reportage, without the reporter – what Hitchcock calls poetry in motion. Robert Drew would conform a style, sans reporter, he defined as Cinema Verite.
I spoke to the great Robert Drew about this in 2010 in an interview that has never been made public until now. Drew died in 2014.
The fact was few in broadcasting knew how to exploit cinema’s factual framework to create ‘feelingful’ films. The Russians did and so too did Grierson and Robert Drew and Associates.
When Grierson wasn’t overtly suggesting social change, his documentaries were cinema — poetic documentary to film experts, such as Hitchcock. Hitchcock described Grierson as a great cinema maker, adding:
If it (camera) was placed in certain ways with cunning artifices it could convey emotional aspects of whatever it was filming,
The BBC’s statutes, however, pressed for information which was politically neutered. Not to mention the Director General Sir William Haley took a keen dislike to television, intensely.
By experimenting and competition, catalysed by the introduction of ITN news in the 1950s, television news would yield a style crafted from the newspapers and standards from radio.
The conditions that forged news were specific to their times. Sixty years on a growing number of professionals recognise that while conditions have changed, TV journalism has not says Deborah Turness, now President of NBC News. If journalism is the art of negotiating a problem and synthesising a solution to inform others, then what tools and style does modern journalism employ?
Many, such as Turness have tried to reform the news package by deconstructing it into its constituents and presenting these to the audience. It didn’t work she says. The answer, however, lies at the source – understanding television news as a language just before its inception.
The gap between not knowing what to do, but being presented with a burgeoning technology, whilst being prescient and pragmatic in understanding what is socially and culturally possible was undertaken by various committees. The Sykes, Crawford, Selsdon, Ullswater Committee were the establishment that framed TV and they approached the problem of TV News making from a particular political place.
The reform of television news is the mythical gold at the end of the rainbow. We think we see it, but it isn’t there, unless we inspect the conditions, and the prism that created the facade in the first place.
Back in 1994, a station I worked for a newspaper group that glimpsed the future. The newspaper, Associated Newspaper, had a head start. It would not be confined by the narrow definition television scores for news. It, a newspaper, not a broadcaster pioneered videojournalism in the UK.
Almost ten years after I was tasked with training the UK’s first group of regional newspaper journalists to become videojournalists which netted an award at the International Videojournalism Awards in Berlin. Snippets of these are rolled into the Business Intelligence Summit presentation to British publishers, in which I explain my practice.
How does the future look?
Simply there is no one future. It’s Bukum. Anyone that purports that there is a universal future of journalism is either deluded or ignorant. Its atomisation — a postmodernist phenomenon is too far gone. US Professor Michael Schudson’s meme that journalism is a social construct shaped by literary and societal conventions was true when journalism started and is evidently obvious now, even if ignored.
A test? Name five different styles of newspaper journalism, then try the same thing in TV news. What you’re faced with in the latter is a cul de sac.
Today, those constraints that shaped television’s conventions are crumbling, axiomatic of historical precedents in interpretation. It’s happened in literature, painting, drama and television is no exception. Furthermore, the lens that defines what television should be has had its tint removed. It’s a box! Albeit a powerful one — in which he who owns it defines its course. To that end Jürgen Habermas’ political sphere squeezing the public voice has a more naked resonance.
If we debunk the language of TV News, the question is what was before it and what happens next? Celebrated documentarist Bill Nichols books point to poetic (Griersonian) or observational documentary.
One argument is everything that is filmed is documentary, yet equally an accented pre-dated documentary style points to cinema — the art of storytelling.
Accepting his Royal Television Award in 2014, the BBC’s Middle East Editor Jeremy Bowen spoke of an interpretive style of broadcasting that delivered an analysis of information on the spot.
He had struggled for 10 years to tell the BBC that this type of analytical (intellectual) reportage was possible. If exemplary reporters were pushing to explain the nuances of an event, departing from the ‘she said, he said’, in the course of my doctorate journey I have identified a growing number of journalists and videojournalists who interpret the visuals and texts as combinants.
All reportage involves interpretation, but not all reportage pulls off literary or analytical schemas to surprise, or fulfil its audience. In the same way that anyone can take a photograph, but not everyone’s photo will emerge as something akin to W.E. Smith, Margaret Bourke-White or Dorothea Lange. Their artefacts did not pull punches and were cognitively dissonant.
I have come to call this revised new craft of journalism moving image makers as a artistic videojournalism, or cinema journalism.
It emerges from the practice of art, cinema and design — unfettered by frameworks, but through cognitive practices emerges amongst exemplars at work. To address the irrationality of PR’s relentless onslaught, you need to often adopt an irrational approach: Art; Cinema journalism.
Mark Cousins, author of the Story of Film and co-author of Imagining Reality, and an award winning filmmaker had this to say below when evaluating my work.
Cinema journalism practitioners; and I have identified twenty four, whom I have written about in my thesis have developed an acute sense of how words and pictures can create any number of cinema styles for impact. It’s not about the technology. We need better understanding of the human mind.
The approach lies out of the conventional framework of traditional television news, but within the boundaries of expressive narrative storytelling.
The form, for traditional television practitioners suffers from a bout of cognitive dissonance. Great Television journalism can be cinema, but not all great cinema is television journalism. Edward Murrow, Alistair Cook and Robert Drew understood television as a medium where the egalitarian relationship between pictures and words – when sometimes there are no words- yielded ‘Art’, with a small ‘a’. In interviewing the father of the Atomic bomb, J. Robert Oppenheimer, Murrow asks a question and waits for almost a minute, without filling in the silence, before Oppenheimer replies. There is power in silence.
In his book Film Theory an Introduction academic and author Robert Stam writes how the future of film is situated in the possibilities of 1922, before mass communication and rigid rules would be laid down to, among others, frame television news.
This resonates with my own findings in The Cinematography of Videojournalism: Towards a creative methodology. The future has been staring us in the face for a while, but it is only now that some have come to acknowledge it. The necessary constraints of the 1940s are being removed by default. There should be more in intentional concerted efforts to do so.
In my next piece I’ll unveil an experiment amongst MA students that adds further weight to this article.
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Dr. David Dunkley Gyimah is a Knight Batten Winner in Innovation in Journalism and an international award-winning videojournalist. His journalism career spans 28 years working for outfits such as Channel 4 News, ABC News and Newsnight. He’s spoken at international conferences e.g. SXSW, WAN and the IJF. His PhD is the cinematography of videojournalism: Towards a creative methodology. He is a senior lecturer at the University of Westminster. Go to www.daviddunkleygyimah.com