Real news is not about rigid formulas17 September 2010
In these embattled, contracting times, journalists talk about "The News" as though it were some kind of sacred artefact. The News is crucial to a healthy democracy. The News is a public service. The News thrives on competition, not monopoly. And, of course, crude cuts threaten to turn off Britain's vital supply of News. But it's time, perhaps, to get a little more analytical.
Competition, to begin with, doesn't always produce better broadcast news coverage. Just sit in some middle-America motel room of an early evening and watch CBS, ABC, NBC and Fox affiliates serve up their respective dishes of the day: same format, same ethnic presenter balances, same weather, same sports commentator in same unappetising blazer - and, worst of all, same choice of stories. The seeming imperative of such competition isn't to try something different: merely to stick to a rigid, interest-denying formula.
It's pretty similar on 24-hour rolling news - in a living room much closer to you, too. Sky and the BBC seem to cover exactly the same live events - prime ministerial press conferences, court rulings or carnage in Cumbria - as though their cameramen are bound together at the hip. They track each other constantly. Their News is his News is our News.
I'm dismally reminded of one of the first foreign reporting trips I was sent on many years ago: to Cyprus, as communal violence spread around the island. I had to change planes, with a very long wait, in Athens, so I went into the city and sat in a park. The man on the next bench was a journalist, too, it turned out, only he was going back to London after a Cyprus stint. "How do you operate?" I asked rather tremulously, very young, very inexperienced. "Oh, it's easy," he said. "You're all in the Ledra Palace hotel - and, straight after breakfast, you go to the bar. When everybody starts to leave, you just follow them."
But just watch a punter pick up a paper and begin to read. Time and again, the first piece that's read is also the closest to home: about Salford, if he lives in Salford; about teacher pay, if he's a schoolteacher; about Arsenal, if he follows the Gunners. News, in short, is a changing, almost living thing. It doesn't exist in a vacuum. It needs readers and viewers to give it force. Its relevance is personal: to the street where you live, to the company where you work, to you and your family, and to making a living. News is a chameleon. News is also fundamentally interactive.
Yet, contentiously, we reach the great stumbling block called "fairness and balance" - otherwise known as public service news, collected and selected, without ostensible slant (but with Ofcom and the BBC Trust watching like hawks).
BBC and ITN editors defend this balance devoutly. It's what they say they believe is the best news way. James Murdoch is much less pious. He thinks that news and political opinion go together, as they do in free newspapers and, over the water, on Fox News. The debate that follows is more visceral than principled. Murdoch journalists tend to back this line. Non-Murdoch journalists reach for a knife. BBC Trustees and Ofcom officiators are naturally opposed to change. They like the supposed purity of now; they don't want an argument that leaves them out.
But, of course, constant argument is what we've got already, as well as many shades of difference. Is Channel 4 news, with its investigations and international empathy, the same as Sky? How do Channel Five's fleeting headlines fit with the stretching hours of radio's Today? I'm not making a case for shock jocks and frantic Foxery here, but an ever-increasing spectrum of news from all over the globe makes its own case.
Who you are and what you believe shapes the news you need regularly, too. Your TV or laptop has become an electronic newsagent full of titles. And if you truly think news matters, then you have to find ways to let it breathe, to discover different ways to speak. There are different opinions on education, immigration, the economy, the European Union. They aren't peripheral. They are where debate - and therefore compelling interest - starts.
In short, if we want to make The News more interesting, we have to be bold enough to set it free. No cost, no subsidy - just a realisation that, at last, we're grown up enough digitally to be able to think for ourselves.
An extended version of this essay appears in a collection, A Creative Recovery, published by the independent thinktank Reform