Saturday 10 July 2010

The day British news sold its soul

In the early hours of this morning a man from the NE of England shot himself. He was wanted on suspicion of killing one person and wounding two others. That was the news. But when did the facts ever get in the way of a good story? The real story was the spectacle of the rolling news coverage's chase for ratings by making true crime and suicide into entertainment.

We are told here in Britain, by the media, that our news service is the most responsible in the world; that we're spared the sensationalist dumbed-down nature of news elsewhere. I don't think that claim can ever be made again and I don't think I'll view British news in quite the same way again, as this morning I feel dirty. I feel as if I helped a man to die because I watched the coverage of 'The Hunt for Moat, Britain's most Wanted Man!' and worse, I found most of the coverage amusing. In my defence I'm a fan of media satirists Chris Morris and Charlie Brooker and I have long viewed the news as the best deadpan comedy show on tv, but perhaps I should stop doing that now. Someone died and I was laughing at the media.

It started a week ago. A prisoner came out of jail. He went round to his former girlfriend's house. He shot her, killed her new boyfriend, and then as he'd got the idea that she'd had an affair with a policeman he shot a random copper. Then he ran. As stories go it's horrible for everyone involved, but its newsworthiness is minor. At least once every few weeks something like that happens in Britain and it usually gets a brief mention on the news long after the big things going on like wars and the Tory government trying to ruin the country. And as it happened Up North and far from London where all the proper news happens it was even less likely to get on the news. Except for the fact that a few months ago a gunman went on a killing spree Up North. Although that man shot everyone before the media arrived, he still provided plenty of non-stories with which to fill up the schedules. That meant that this gunman deserved to be followed because he was still on the loose. He could kill again! So unlike the previous time where the media could cover only the aftermath, now they could cover the rising death toll as it happened, live on screen in a sure-fire ratings winning spectacular.

The first couple of days were entertaining. We had a chief constable with a perm that wouldn’t have looked out of place in the 1980s cop-show Juliet Bravo. We had bluff northern coppers delivering press conferences in which they talked for half an hour in amusing copper speak (t' public are oor eyes 'n ears) to report that nothing had happened other than them getting a new incident room. And we had southern reporters struggling to pronounce northern town names.

With the media taking an interest, and with budget cuts and senior jobs on the line, the police realized they needed to catch this man quickly, so they employed several thousand more coppers. The media then realized this was a big story because thousands of coppers were running around fields frightening sheep and tripping over cowpats, so big-gun reporters and presenters were turfed out of their plush London offices to visit that weird world north of Watford. So the police sent every copper in the country along with the SAS... Within a few days the media were reporting on their own over-reaction and the gunman had become Britain's most wanted man, despite having done nothing new and despite being in hiding. With it looking as if NATO would get involved the media frenzy descended on a small picturesque Northern village with plenty of nice looking pubs and hotels where the gunman was rumoured to have holed up.

The media were desperate for the body count to rise so they could spread fear, and yet nothing was happening and nobody was dying and nobody was particularly frightened. With everyone going about their business, the media tried harder. When the gunman phoned the police to say he wasn't a nutter and he wasn't a threat to anyone, the media and police reported that the gunman is a nutter who is threatening everyone so stay indoors wherever you live in the country as there's an armed nutter on the loose. The news agenda was 'a pall of fear hangs over the frightened, cowering villagers like a giant fearful pall of scary fear'. Except the images behind the media circus were: woman walking dog, farmer tending sheep, children skipping, old ladies chatting, man waving at camera. Reporters shoved mikes in the faces of locals and demanded: 'How utterly petrified are you at the terrifying thought of a heavily-armed crazed nutter on the rampage in your very own garden?' To which they got the reply that: 'Wy-I-man, I'm a canny lad, me, and t' daft bugger ain't note t' fear, pet.' While the local wandered off to do his shopping the reporters decided that was Geordie for the pall of fear was descending ever lower. We even had a BBC reporter asking a local what terrible, scary things were happening in the village right now and being told that he had no idea as the pub's tv couldn't pick up Sky News.

It became clear that the real story was one the media didn't want to report: The gunman was a local man who'd gone off the rails. The only people in danger were people who had crossed him. Everybody felt sorry for him and nobody was worried about anything other than the sight of thousands of heavily-armed police officers guarding the local chippy in case he came in for a fish supper and the scary vision of media-vampire Kay Burley from Sky News on their village green. Everyone hoped he'd give himself up, preferably after shooting up Kay. After seven days of blanket coverage of nothing happening other than locals doing their shopping, kids playing, dogs peeing on camera stands, and reporters reporting on how everything was chaotic because of all the reporters everywhere, it all came to a head last night. It turned out the gunman had been hiding in a hole on the village green where the reporters were all week and the entire British police force plus the media had missed him because they'd been too busy giving press conferences.

Hours of continuous coverage followed of the gunman threatening nobody but himself. We had excited reporters excitedly reporting that the petrified villagers had been told to stay indoors, while being jostled by happy villagers enjoying ice-creams and filming footage for youtube. We had reporters blocking the road reporting on the fact they were blocking the road and had been told to stop blocking the road and then blocking the road some more. We had reporters trying to scare random people outside the pub with rumours that their mothers might be a mile away from the gunman. We had the joy of flicking between channels to get multi-angle panoramic views of reporters from one channel interviewing reporters from other channels while being told to bugger off by police. We had a ten-mile exclusion zone that was keeping everyone from venturing within 200 yards of the scene. And we had reports from bedrooms within the exclusion zone that were more detailed and calm than anything the real reporters could manage.

After several more hours of nothing happening other than reporters running up and down the road getting in the way of the police and scaring holidaymakers, a couple of locals arrived to ask: 'Wy-I-man, why y' daft buggers settin' up t'cameras 'ere? We been watchin' t'shoot-out up yon track, pet. It's reet borin' so we're off down t'pub.' Cameras were dispatched and the footage changed to film of a tree. As darkness descended and it started to rain it got surreal. A boozed-up Paul Gascoigne, a suicidal ex-footballer with severe psychological issues, arrived to talk the gunman into giving himself up in exchange for a dressing gown and a fishing rod, and I realized I was better off watching the more realistic events on Big Brother on the other side.

I gather it went on for a few more hours until 'a shot or shots' were fired, but somewhere along the way something else died last night. Now I guess it's only a matter of time before the media are promoting a new most wanted man seeking his few moments of celebrity. Apparently shooting yourself live on tv gets better ratings than Big Brother does these days.


Ron Scheer said...

Sounds like a typical day on the local news in Los Angeles. What you were missing was a freeway car chase. And, yeah, it's discouraging.

Hugh Jee From Jersey said...

"Sounds like a typical day on the local news in Los Angeles."

Or New York/New Jersey for that matter. Isn't journalism wonderful when some ditzy blond sticks a microphone in the spouse's face and asks, "How do you feel about Robert getting his head blown off? Does it make you angry?"

But look at it this way....when a kid is growing up and wants to decide if he/she should join the circus or get into television news.....well, now they can do both!

beverly said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
beverly said...

Spot on. I watched the live coverage on Sky News until it became too surreal. When the guy is surrounded by police and no longer a danger, why wait for hours on end for something to happen.

Also, what the media don't get is "normal" people don't just go out and shoot their ex lover for no reason. He obviously had mental health problems, and questions should be asked as to why no-one picked this up before he was released. I think he was let down as well as his victims.