Thursday, October 26, 2006

Dan asks "Whose News?"

Over the last few weeks I have had access to Sky Television and, being a complete news junkie, I have had my eyes widened by the presence of around 10 rolling news channels, about nine more than I am used to. Among these are of course BBC News, CNN, Indian CNN, Euro News, Sky News, Chinese state International Television (appropriately called CCTV) and the often unbelievable Murdoch owned Fox News.

Now, so much comment has been expended on or about Fox News that I guess I can offer very little in the way of new observations here. It enjoys great viewing figures globally, but particularly in the US - whose flag, since the outbreak of the second gulf war, it has flown in the top-left-hand corner of the screen. It is US based and, as would be expected, mostly US-centric. Yet its editorial style is that of a tabloid newspaper. Imagine, if you will, Daily Mail TV, and you are perhaps someway there.

News casters often give their personal opinions on the stories they have just reported on, and trade often inane and inappropriate chat between items. One programme in particular, ‘The O’Reilly Factor’, is a particular affront to the notion of unbiased journalism. To be fair, it doesn’t actually purport to be unbiased, but with its litany of guests, many of whom seem to be old friends of the host from his days on talk radio, the viewer isn’t exactly presented with a broad spectrum of viewpoints. Instead there is just a weary “as I suspected” attitude prevailing over a programme where coverage normally levitates around illegal Mexican workers, non-apologetic views on American foreign policy and ‘war on terror’ updates (complete with sound effects and glossy graphics whooshing across the screen indicating the current degree to which Americans should be terrified).

I’ve watched Mr O’Reilly’s show a number of times over these past weeks. Quite recently he challenged Michael Moore to appear to discuss current affairs. Moore agreed, I suspect begrudgingly, yet was clearly unprepared and was disarmed by the extent of preperation which O’Reilly had clearly undertaken in advance. Moore, despite raising some uncomfortable points for the host to contend with, was left repeating the rather silly mantra of asking whether Mr O’Reilly would send his son to Iraq to fight.

On another occasion there was outrage over a film by Channel Four (UK) which purports to depict the assassination of George Bush (at some point in the near future) and which was premiering at a Canadian film festival. It is evidentlty a broadcasting taboo on a grand scale in the US to show the assassination of a sitting president. Fox, and in particular Mr O’Reilly, was outraged. It was ‘abhorrently tasteless’, they proclaimed, to not only show this but to show it so close to the anniversary of the September 11th attacks. A Fox reporter was bought in with what seemed like the sole purpose of confirming Mr O’Reilly’s suspicions. Their conversation went something like this:

- O’Reilly: What do these people have to say for themselves?
- Reporter: Well, British TV station Channel Four say…
- O’Reilly: Is this BBC Channel 4?
- Reporter: er… yes Bob I believe it is..
- O’Reilly: As I suspected.

(Mr O’Reilly has a near pathological dislike of the BBC as can be seen here)

- Reporter: Well, they say that the scene featuring the assassination happens right at the beginning and should be set in context of the rest of the programme, which explores the United States’ actions throughout its war on terror. It does not seek to glorify in any sense violence or the assassination.
- O’Reilly: Well I bet the White House will have something to say! What about the totally tasteless timing of when this will be shown?
- Reporter: Well, Channel 4 says that they didn’t schedule it and that it was up to the people at the film festival when it was to be shown there.
- O’Reilly: Unbelievable...
- Reporter: Yes, Bob.

I’ve watched very little of Fox News but enough to make an impression on me. I’m sure some American readers can add much more about this news outlet than I am able to do. On the web, YouTube has many clips of Fox either BBC-bashing or lampooning liberals and there are many websites devoted to its eccentricities. The Channel celebrates its 10th birthday this week and is apparently going strong.

I guess like most things in America it’s a market driven thing. The market for news coverage is competitive, with players relying on commercial revenue, so niches have to be carved out. Ten years ago, perhaps, the Fox Corporation spotted a hole in the market for news with a patriotic, right wing twist and decided to go for it.

Is television news coverage in the US like newspaper coverage here? With the consumer buying into the product that most suits his or her lifestyle and aspirations? I fail to see the point of a person receiving their news from somewhere that does not give due attention to the facts and is unbiased in its coverage - allowing the viewer to make up his or her own mind. Otherwise all that is left is a form of entertainment. Is this what Fox News is? The Fox Corporation itself is too wide and varied to be represented by this news channel and I wouldn’t claim for a second that a figure such as Rupert Murdoch has any editorial control over it. This still doesn’t fully explain its agenda, however.

I don’t think the same could happen on this side of the Atlantic. I hope that there are broadcasting guidelines against it. However, the standard of mainstream News broadcasting, I believe, has hit a low over the last few years. The BBC and ITN’s main early evening fare is a classic case of style over any substance. The dumb format of having two newscasters, one male, one female is now fully established, as is the tradition that each reads a line of the autocue in turn, as if indulging in some inane and headache-inducing game of verbal ping pong before they go live to a reporter ‘in the field’ (outside the Houses of Parliament for politics, or in an actual field for something about agriculture) for one minute’s basic facts which could have far more easily just been telephoned or emailed into the studio. Then time to stand up and walk a bit because it’s the ‘Special Report’ on something like school dinners. Traditionally, the special report, which often isn’t something very newsworthy at all, lasts a little bit longer than the coverage of major news stories.

I am always left feeling sorry for the poor Middle East correspondent who is tasked with fitting the often complex story surrounding some latest atrocity into a minute and a half long gap in the schedule. His or her eyes seem to plead for more time and recognition of the long years spent in the field, the expertise he or she has accumulated, but no, it’s always cut short by a “thank you very much, we must leave it there… and now to our special report on kid’s pack lunches”.

The BBC and ITN are still able to excel and often do with programmes such as Channel 4 News and Newsnight, which (and I myself may be biased) remain towering colossuses of longstanding journalistic values, impartiality and insight. Especially when seen in comparison with the young and opinionated upstart that is Fox News.

[Blogging by Dan]


Dan said...

I would just like to add a Post Script to this entry as it was written a few weeks ago.

I said in it that I thought that Murdoch had no editorial control over the network and while I suspect this is still largely the case many former Fox News reporters claim that there were in fact daily dictums for head office giving strong direction to the type of story they wanted covered and the language they wanted used, especially in relation to the US military.

Again YouTube proves to be a goldmine for both eye opening insights from ( ) and amusing swipes ( ) at the Fox News network and figures such as Bill O'Reilly who I must say by the way gives over an astonishing amount of his show to selling his new book and promoting his talk radio show.

The site is full of such clips and counters argument too and like Fox News itself watching them is sometimes entertaining. Perhaps that’s the point; still it’s an affront and troubling that an entire news organization should go to such lengths to project the news in a certain way.

eleanor said...

Really interesting reading, thanks. I've never watched Fox News but I remember someone telling me that they actually use the terms 'good guys' and 'bad guys' - those videos are great.

Dan said...

One final Bill O'Reilly point...

A succinct put down I think.

Pete Ashton said...

Just came here to point you towards Outfoxed but you've already found it. Worth seeing the whole thing if you can.

Anyhoo, I wrote about it myself here: