Friday, 11 July 2008

The age of the news monoculture

Terrorism without 24-hour television is unthinkable in our time - in fact, almost pointless. As little as fifteen years ago, news of the bombing of London public transport in 2005 would have been confined to evening news broadcasts and the following day's newspapers. On July 7 of that year, though, it was the only item on US and British satellite and cable news networks throughout the day - understandably, perhaps, but to the profit of terrorists nonetheless.

The relatively new 24-hour news industry, invented by Ted Turner in 1980, came of age when it showed that it could monopolise a war with the first Gulf War of 1991. Rupert Murdoch's Fox network decided to own the second gulf war in 2003, and brought it to US audiences with a vengeance.

This breed of exclusively news-filled networks does not fare well in languid times, but their genius lies in the illusion that they are faster to gather the news because they are faster in showing it. Their viewership accordingly shoots up the moment there is a crisis.

This forms an unfortunate alliance between terrorists and the most effective news delivery systems yet invented. And the 24 hour news coverage syndrome is now affecting the mainstream. Non-24 hour news networks have learned to cut into their regular programming with breaking news as a point of style, and the internet has emerged as a kind of live, 24 hour newspaper. Search engines are partly judged on their ability to dredge the most important news stories from the world wide web.
In his first comments after the 2005 bomb blasts, British Prime Minister Tony Blair lamented the fact that the coordnated attack seemed "designed and aimed to coincide with the opening of the G-8."

He said, "It's particularly barbaric that this has happened on a day when people are meeting to try to help the problems of poverty in Africa and the long-term problems of climate change in the environment."

Blair was quite right. The G8 were meeting at the Gleneagles Hotel in Scotland, and the terrorists were pointedly stealing his media spotlight on his home turf as he tried to even the inequalities between the rich and poor hemispheres, and to reverse global warming - admittedly, perhaps the two greatest threats to global stability. Yet in this massive distraction from humanity's true challenges, the terrorists' greatest allies were the Western broadcast media, and by wiping all else from the minds of viewers they demonstrated a power over elected governments to set their electorate's agenda.

The monoculture of a particular news story at times when it is breaking is, for most of us, not strictly necessary. Focusing on a single story does not increase the speed with which the story unfolds, but it does reassure viewers just tuning in that whatever news may transpire - such as a press conference or an eye-witness report - will be dealt with in 'real time'.

At times of the greatest urgency, therefore, broadcasters spend most of their time regurgitating the scraps of information they have and discussing what they don't know as news. Networks get away with this because they treat audiences to the thrill of blowing open the newsgathering process by eliminating the production process. There is no vetting of sources or careful script editing; there is just the throwing onto air whatever can be found to beat the opposition.

Although few of us would admit it, the only real reason for eliminating all other news is one of entertainment - giving people the mesmerising news item all of the time. Voyeuristically replaying the video of aeroplanes crashing into New York's Twin Towers, showing again and again the moment of death for hundreds of firefighters as the towers collapsed, was, to the incredulous viewing public of September 11, 2001, somehow acceptable. It was momentarily unnecessary to ration some of the most traumatising footage the world had seen since 1945 for when networks had something to say over it.

That, after all, is the point of terrorism - to strike fear into the hearts of many by magnifying a limited capability. Being a live medium, 24-hour television contains the dramatic element and, unlike the internet, which is an essentially individual tool, it broadcasts to an audience aware of the simultaneity of the experience, which enhances it.

We cannot now turn back the clock. We live, irrevocably, in our own global, 24-hour live drama series. But we can, at least, be aware of the virtues and dangers of our situation.

Our media environment has the power to keep us abreast of more information than any previous generation had at its fingertips. Rapid transmission of images and sounds can allow viewers to judge for themselves aspects of a news story. But it can also more easily expose us to spurious sources and condition us to anger and fear. It can inure us to the coverage that counts, and by its sheer size, the news industry as a whole can be an effective tool for mass manipulation. Merely to be aware of this is to begin to build a new immunity for a new age.

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