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Breaking news – one frenzy at a time

Posted on 18 May 2009 | 10:05am

Sorry to harp on about an old familiar theme – oh ok, I’m not sorry at all – but is it not strange how, with more media space than ever, the press and broadcasters appear unable to manage more than one frenzy at a time?

It seems just days ago – indeed it was just days ago – that to turn on a TV or radio, or open up a newspaper, was to be confronted with the dire threat that we were all just one stranger’s sneeze away from dropping down dead from swine flu.

Reporters, many bravely foregoing masks, vied with each other to see who could pack the highest concentration of scary ‘facts’, words, thoughts and images into a single two-way.

Where did it go? Are we still at risk or not? Apparently there were 14 new cases reported in Britain yesterday, yet where was the ‘whoosh’ breaking news banner to indicate that this was really important? India and Turkey – hey, big places – became the 38th and 39th countries respectively to have confirmed cases. But no ‘let’s go over to Phil Space in Delhi and Jody Babble in Ankara to find out the latest.’

Swine flu? Who cares? There is another story now. Haven’t you heard? EM-PEEEES’ EX-PEN-SES!

I was mainly pottering round the house yesterday, reading a bit, (Mayor of Casterbridge) writing a bit (an interview with Burnley manager Owen Coyle for the play-off final matchday programme, just a week to go) watching a bit of football (how graceless is Rafa Benitez?) and found myself making regular but brief visits to the BBC News Channel and Sky News. Of thirteen such visits, two took me to commercials, two to Sri Lanka, and nine to reports or discussions on expenses.

I’m not saying it is not an important story, or that the country is not talking about it. But I was quite taken with the discussion I saw with a group of London-based correspondents from France, Germany, Italy and Russia, whose basic message was that they were not covering it much at all.

But my point is not whether it merits all the coverage it is getting here, but whether swine flu suddenly doesn’t matter. It seems to me we have more media than ever, in terms of space, what with 24/7 news, the internet, bigger papers, more freesheets being thrust at you every time you step off a tube train, yet less genuine understanding of what happens in the world. It’s a paradox. But 24 hour news doesn’t do paradox. It does certainties. Which pass. Very quickly. Then another one comes along.

What will the next one be? Who knows? Nobody, least of all them. All we know is that when it does come, they will be instant experts, and they will assume that it – whatever it is – is the only story that anyone out there cares about.

Meanwhile, a word of congratulations if I may for the government, who appear to me to have handled the swine flu situation rather well – preparations had been made, a plan went into action, seems to have done the job it was intended to do. So Mr Sky/Ms BBC News … what about an interview with Alan Johnson on how it all happened?

Alan Johnson? You kidding me? The guy’s expenses are boring. Not even a flat screen TV or a new music system, let alone a moat or a helipad. What on earth would we want to hear from him for?

What if he made a statement in Parliament updating the House on swine flu then?

A statement? In the House? Now you’re talking – will be slag off Michael Martin?

I doubt it.

Will he indicate he is ready to challenge Gordon if the expenses row leads to Labour meltdown in the Euro elections?

No, I don’t think so.

So what’s the story?

How the government contained swine flu … how we need to remain vigilant … update on the situation round the world … next steps …

Zzzzzzz … so yesterday’s story. Gotta go. That weird-looking guy Douglas Carswell has just arrived in the studio … says he’s got another signature on his petition calling on the Speaker to go.

Does 24/7 News help or hinder your understanding of what happens in the world? For yes press green, for no press red.

  • Steven

    “That weird-looking guy Douglas Carswell…”
    Any need to drag things down to Derek Draper levels of debate? Personal attacks seem to be the Labour way when someone proves problematic (I think of Dr Kelly, Mo Mowlam etc.).Not edifying in the least.

  • John Clift

    Completely agree! The media seem to live on sensation, like teenagers in the first rush of hormonal change. There is a complete lack of balance, and what used to be a reasonable attempt to provide news has now become a channel of mass entertainment, with the equivalent commercial need to get ‘bums on seats’. I get annoyed every time I read a newspaper these days.

  • david

    I agree we have to get this into perspective. But political leaders should have been aware of this scandel for some time, yet they allowed it to fester. I have always been a labour supporter, but now I am wobbling towards the LibDems. I desperately want GB to show some leadership in the public domain and bring issues about the economy and public service to the fore. Come on Gordon and sort it out.

  • mary

    Dear Alastair, Often I admire your take on things, but this time but you haven’t got it. EEVERYONE is talking about the expenses scandal, including me. When I watched Kate Hoey looking all glowing and virtuous talking to Andrew Marr yesterday I looked up her expenses. It seems she charges fo her tube journeys to the Commons and that is within the rules. Why? I then noticed that Mr. Balls and Ms Cooper claim £700 per month for food? Apparently also within the rules! Why should the taxpayer pay for Mr. Brown’s cleaner? Above all has this situation existed for so long? What was the Blair government thinking of?

  • Jane A

    That’s such an accurate blog today. Swine flu has become a non-story because we are *not* deep-freezing dead people while civilisation breaks down as deadly coughs and sneezes take out a generation of our finest.

    Within the NHS, where we practice what we will do when pandemics strike, its business as usual – tamiflu to the patient, sources tracked and traced, schools closed but only for the minimum time. So, no panic, everyone on top of a situation. Yet where is the praise for the Labour Govt for having the foresight to stockpile anti-virals, train staff for these situations, and manage this as well as the day job of treating people? It’s nowhere.

    Were we screwing up, it would be the “Government” failing to control the plague.

    Two brief asides ; back from hols and a week reading the Salzburger Nachrichten with breakfast. MPs’ expenses – a couple of paragraphs all week. Swine flu, same. Sense of proportion, yes….

    Rafa Benitez – inexcusable gracelessness.

    PS – Phil Space – made me laugh out loud.

  • Richard

    I’m pretty chuffed the swine flu thing has gone quiet.

    On the expenses thing tho – why oh why oh why didn’t anyone give the head’s up? Fair enough, blame the MPs but surely an admin dude should have been empowered (like Ian McCartney did) to think – err… hang on a minute – d’ya reckon you should pay it back just if this case goes, yer know, catastophically wrong? Hey ho – none of my buisness really.

  • Michael

    I think many people would like the Speaker to go. Very many people would like a Genaral Election asap. This expenses business clearly isn’t as big a deal to you as it is to the electorate. Smearing Carswell with the descriptor ‘weird-looking’ is unworthy as well as irrelevant. Had a political commentator described Elliott Morley or Ian McCartney weird-looking a few years ago, you would doubtless have been apoplectic.

    I really felt for the Bury North Labour activists on Saturday – all that leafletting and canvassing for a far from honourable member. The implications of this story are potentially massive – you’re really not with it on this one Alistair.

  • Terry Evans


    It’s sounding like you’d like to see the expenses issue go away. I think this affair merits a lot of coverage, but there needs to be more balance to it. What we need now is for parliament to lance the boil with complete openness, and publish everything member by member. That way we can see the good from the bad. Let’s pray there is still more good than bad.

    The purpose of this blog was to criticize 24hr news coverage, and on that you are correct, but unfortunately unless these channels do more programming rather than just rolling news, this problem is inevitable. We are having red top style journalism now on our T.V

  • Brian Hughes

    “Does 24/7 News help or hinder your understanding of what happens in the world?” – can I choose “neither of the above” please?!

    It’s largely so UK-centric that you’d never know there is a rest of the world. What “foreign” news creeps in is largely about outrages in former colonies (including the US of course). Even Europe (of which we sometimes pretend to be part) barely gets a mention.

    A long time ago, Radio Four (possibly when it was still the Home Service) had a twenty minute programme of “overseas” news each weekday evening at seven. It was dropped because no one, apart from some oddballs like me, was tuning in. Now the Archers is in its slot.

    Truly we live on a small island…

  • Steven James

    You have hit the nail on the head but, of course, it’s hardly a surprise. It was your understanding of the people in the media and what they want that made you so good at thwat you did for TB – indeed, you have probably shaped many of them in the media into what they are today. Now there’s a thought Alastair, Dr Frankenstein!

  • UglyGrump

    I’d rather here what Owen Coyle has to say. I can hardly bare the suspense, or dare to hope!

    [And thanks to Jane A. I missed the ‘Phil Space’ gag the first time around. Cue delayed laughter.]

  • Colin Morley

    Glad to hear I am not alone in cringing at the “woosh” breaking news gimmick pioneered by Sky and now sadly emulated by even the good old Beeb. Time was I could catch up on all the important stories in fifteen minutes before work each morning. These days its the same “big” story from ninety-nine angles before moving on. I haven’t watched any news since this morning, but the chances are if I turn on either Sky or News 24 it will be the same ‘breaking news’ that was breaking over my breakfast.
    If only France 24 was less bland!

  • Alina Palimaru

    In response to some posts, I am not sure AC suggests an elimination of coverage of expenses. He is merely observing that the media are disproportionately covering the MPs expenses topic when there are equally important stories that should compete for coverage. I agree with his point. If the media were genuinely interested in serving the public interest (to inform, educate etc) then they should have more than one priority story at a time, because right now multiple issues have social/health/financial/economic relevance for the public.

    However, their exclusive focus on just one story reiterates their commercial approach to news as a lucrative ‘commodity’ rather than as a useful public service. It shows that coverage is not supplied based on need for information, in order to assist the public’s understanding of the issues and enable them to make responsible decisions. Instead, it is supplied based on an obscure concept of ‘demand’ for the ‘breaking news’ of the day. I use ‘obscure’ because it is unclear that members of the public truly ‘demand’ this nonsense. (It’s a catch-22 situation in my view.) But this commercial angle entails a need for a new story every day or else it would no longer be breaking three days later… No more breaking news and inflated headlines? Lower audience. Lower audience? Less money!

    Also, regarding expenses…. the media have made their point. A handful of MPs did something that was terribly wrong and unethical. But the question arises: now what? How can we improve the expenses system? How can we make it more transparent? What worked in the past in this country? What is working now in other countries? In one word: let’s move from scandal to substance, a shift which is, no doubt, in everyone’s objective real interest.

  • Alan Quinn

    I was at a Labour activists meeting where our speaker was from the Citizen’s Advice Bureau. The great tragedy of this expenses scandal is that the scum press will not report the news that the government has borought in measures to help the unemployed losing their home. You can get a holiday on your mortgage if you lose youe job, you can get loans, even if the case goes to court 80% of judges refuse the reposession. The government have given the CAB another £10M to hire more advisors and have brought in legislation to make sure that this recession is not another 1990’s because they care.

  • Wyrdtimes

    Apologies for being off topic but I’m sure this will be of interest to a man so passionate about the fine English game of Association Football.

    Mr C have you seen Mr McBroon’s endorsement of the England 2018 World Cup bid? Vid is here:

    Please note how Mr Brown has morphed into a proud Englishman. He refers to England as “our country”, English football clubs as “our clubs” and England’s 1966 world cup win as “our world cup triumph”.

    Isn’t it great that a man who has lived in England such a short time can assimilate? If only all immigrants could take on English nationality so well. Sadly, in some cases there are generations born in England who keep their alien identity. Sad really, England is such a welcoming place!

  • CPW

    Would it be churlish to suggest, were it not for the media’s incessant coverage of government malfeasance, great and small, you would have been unemployed throughout the 90s and 2000s. Or, rather, you would still be at the Mirror, back on ‘kecks detail’, describing for us the important political peccadilloes of the day.

    Although, were you still at that esteemed newspaper, we’d surely know by now who holds Cameron’s winkle when he makes toilet. He’s surely too posh to piss himself.

  • Renee

    I agress with Alastair – why is the media unable to report on more than crisis at a time? Further, why was the PM so slow to respond to the expense story(ies)…maybe the expense story would have changed tack if he had responded earlier and acknowledged the situation and delivered details on changes to the system?

  • Jane A

    @Colin Morley

    You are certainly not alone hating the “woosh”. I have had a ramble about this on here before. It’s usually to note something asinine as opposed to significant, and hopelessly overused. Therefore if all news is breaking, no news is really “breaking” – we get so inured to it, we stop taking note.

    My other real whinge is when the major media send someone off to somewhere to report on it. It suggests unless you are in Burkino Faso, or Washington, or Little Snodsbury-On-The-Brain, you can’t comment on it. (Sky’s Soccer Saturday proves each week you only need eyes, a monitor, and a sense of occasion.)

    I especially love it when they send battalions of people on round the clock shifts to sit outside environmental fora and feed back on the vagaries of needless air travel. All eighteen of them. Or – don’t get me started, really – have to stand in front of the Eiffel Tower in case we don’t believe it’s really Paris, and think they’ve just gone to pose in a garden in White City with an appropriately jaunty beret.