July 26, 2017

Horse 2301 - News Should Not Be Sport (And Sport Isn't Really News)

Speaking as someone who follows the news in much the same way as I follow sport, I often see the various items in much the same light. This is also reinforced by the way in which news is often reported. And to that end, I am deeply disturbed by the way that news and in particular politics is reported.

Once upon a time, in the land that they call "the past"; which is a land which has its borders permanently closed and to which you may never return, the reporting of news was done by people who had to develop the skills to be able to both report on what has happened but also write some meaningful prose that was fit to print. By the time that radio and television had arrived, those skills had been honed and pieces to microphone and to camera were sometimes as worthy in the art of thesp as the grandest performances under the praesidium arch. Pieces from foreign correspondents needed to be economical with words but still accurate, and long form​ journalism quite rightly deserved accolades.
However, some time after the invention of the 24 hour news channel and the 24 hour news cycle which has been specifically tailored for it, it has become ever apparent that the demand to fill what would otherwise be dead airtime, has engulfed the newsroom; to the detriment of all. If there are well reasoned pieces, they are reserved for the fixed bulletins but the rest of the day has been filled with that most dreaded of beasts: the pundit.

I was in the bank for a full 45 minutes one day late last week; on a day when their computer network unilaterally decided to become a notwork. A lot of the time that I spend waiting in line in bank queues usually sees me as the unwilling target of children's entertainment; with Dora the Explorer posing questions of an imaginary audience and then staring blankly at the camera in pretence of waiting for a child to speak, or Peppa Pig going on inane adventures to find a missing bath plug or some such, of perhaps the Paw Patrol going on an equally inane adventure searching for some missing object. On this particular day though, I was in the bank watching Sky News to see someone at a news desk stare blankly into the camera while they were waiting for an announcement from Peter Dutton which was never forthcoming. Enter the pundits.
There was an ex politician from the state parliament from Victoria who I'd never heard of before, and two journalists from The Daily Telegraph and The​ Australian, both of whom I find deeply troubling and secretly wish that their entire life's work could be thrown into the Memory Hole of the Ministry Of Truth from Orwell's "1984". This panel was set up exactly the same way as one might find before or after a football match, with the journalists spouting drivel and the host doing his best to put on a face as though he had stumbled into a discussion of uncommon wisdom and​ profundity. To be honest I would have preferred Dora the Explorer to be speaking because she at least has the decency to shut up. These two columnists, who were faced with the abyss of dead air time filled it with little more than their own ideological agenda in lieu of actual on the ground reportage which was never forthcoming.

You could have replaced the ex politician with a former full forward from Collingwood, the two news pundits with journalists whose work usually occupies the back and not the front pages of the newspaper, changed the graphics from Sky News to Sky Sports and I don't​ think that I would have been any the wiser. For all I know, they could be using exactly the same set because with flat panel screens, the background can be changed with the push of a button.
From a technical​ standpoint it makes perfect sense that you'd want to have television programs which are directly interchangeable. In this case, the cameras, sound gear and the lighting wouldn't even have to move and I imagine that you'd be able to hot bunk programs all the day through. From a truthiness and newsworthiness standpoint, this is the equivalent of feeding the news watching public chips and gravy forever.
The problem as I see it isn't a technical one but the fact that the television programs are interchangeable to the point that not even the hosts or the guests seem to know the difference. It's bad enough that political punditry passes itself off as journalism when really it is just commentary without a sense of its own cadence but politicians themselves think that they are sports people and have forgotten that making policy has lasting implications for more than just the duration of the match in progress.

I will admit that I am not a journalist and that I wouldn't know how to craft a well reasoned piece for television, radio or print, if I was slapped in the face by Randolph Hearst himself but I do know that the best of these things that I've written, take time to develop before they bloom and grow. The sheer time that it takes to write a thing, reread the thing and make final corrections on the thing, produces a better result than someone spouting whatever they can think of at the spur of the moment.
It used to be in the days when there was only one nightly news bulletin or one edition of the newspaper, that political journalists would have the necessary time to craft their pieces and edit them. That space still might exist in the creation of those bulletins and with distinct interview type shows such as 7.30 or Lateline but it is absolutely impossible for a rolling news program. This isn't the television equivalent of PM on Radio National but of the myriad of breakfast and drive programs; if you then add an element of shock-jockery, then not only has the art of producing political news as craft been thrown out the window but it has also been bashed with cricket bats after it has not the ground.

Addenda:
It's not just news as sport which I find disturbing but sport as news which I find equally as disturbing.

To wit, Liverpool FC played Sydney FC in a post season tour match and it was broadcasted on ABC2. ABC2 were given practically zero notice that they were going to broadcast the match and hastily compiled a panel of hosts who were hopelessly out of their depth. Given that this was a match of literally zero consequence, it scarcely mattered though. This caused something of a furore, especially in News Corp newspapers, and the ABC became a collective punching bag.
Speaking as a Liverpool fan, I had no problem at all with the way that the match was covered. I even had no problem with Aaron Chen's pieces to camera as someone who was bemused and confused by the whole affair. This was a football match; it wasn't like international diplomacy was being conducted. The abject seriousness with which sport is treated sometimes, is ridiculous. Treating sport with the reverence of a funeral or of a court proceeding, is misplaced. The​ whole premise of sport is that it really doesn't matter. "Football isn't a matter of life and death, its much more important than that" might very well be the sentiment expressed by Bill Shankly but he would have been fully aware that the people who stood on the terraces week in and week out, had complicated lives outside of the ground. Sport matters so very much precisely because it is fluff.

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