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Artillery Row

Obscured by bias and opinion

When the news no longer feels like the news

With news nowadays, there is this nagging feeling of being practised upon: of being fed something as a means to an end, like a farmyard animal being fattened up for market. 

This feeling often arises spontaneously and within seconds of the thing starting. For me, it most often comes on at the break of day on being woken by BBC Radio 5Live’s 5am news bulletin. I don’t know why the alarm-radio is still set to 5Live, except by habit and that pronounced intolerance for new things that we have on waking, especially on a Monday morning. Anyway, it is normally trivial and annoying.

This is like a newspaper commissioning an opinion piece from someone important and making a front page story out of their comments

On one of these 5am bulletins recently, the top story was the Scotland football manager saying his team will “learn” from their latest defeat – the type of story that would do well to head a sports section, let alone news. The previous day it was the latest assertion of Nicola Sturgeon promoting the latest Covid restrictions in Scotland. On the morning on which I am writing, one story consisted of a few words from a “scientist” saying how relaxing mask-wearing legislation was dangerous. The last one was how United States President Joe Biden had attacked Republican state legislators for apparently making voting more difficult for women and ethnic minorities.

Now, these examples may rankle to some because of perceived political bias. However what makes this possible is that they each lead with the assertions of certain people – which is to say their opinions. The football manager, the scientist, a Democratic President: all have their opinions channelled directly to the listener with barely a word on what they are opining about. The segment on Biden was 100 per cent Biden’s assertion. It had no details about the legislation itself or how it might change voting patterns. We only hear how Biden says it is racist and sexist.

In editorial terms this is like a newspaper commissioning an opinion piece from someone important and making a front page story out of their comments: a normal practice. Similarly, there is the “outrage as” story, which allows editors to place certain people’s reactions to events ahead of the events themselves. Of course, those outraged opinions invariably match the publication’s editorial line, which is to say its political positioning. Through these techniques, opinion transforms itself seamlessly into news.

The “outrage as” story used to be largely a tabloid practice. However it has spread to most broadsheets and is now almost ubiquitous in online news. Most written publications do not have impartiality constraints and can do more or less what they like with their news output.

In news broadcasts I think we are seeing and hearing how these habits have spilled over, partly reflecting the merging of written and broadcast news, partly from an intention to make broadcasts more relevant in the face of intense competition, but also because of the revolving doors between broadcast and written media. Turning opinion into news is second nature to written journalists – and so it is in broadcast now. Doing this to enforce a certain political positioning is likewise a habit. Indeed, without strict oversight over editorial standards, this sort of thing might seem almost inevitable.

Back in the day the news coming on would be an opportunity to hear a pretty basic selection of the most significant events happening in our world. And by saying our world I mean that which is most important to us. It’s a relational thing: a matter of shared concerns. 

However, at least for me that relation seems to have almost completely broken down, not just on 5Live but across the rest of BBC and indeed on most of the rest of the broadcast media. I feel it and I know a great many other people feel it too.

I think this feeling is pronounced for many of us because we can still, albeit vaguely, recall a time when this wasn’t the case: when the news seemed to just happen without pressing upon us, without that feeling of force being exerted. This brings a sense of loss, of something important and meaningful having ceased to exist. It also brings that feeling of our trust having been exploited, betrayed: of others attempting to redirect our commitments against our will.

It has more the character of an intervention, a bit like workplace training or being called in to see the boss about some infraction

As a result, the news feels very different to what it used to. Now it has more the character of an intervention, a bit like workplace training or being called in to see the boss about some infraction. It feels like yet another opportunity for our overseeing class to feed us with the latest materials it has selected in order to maximise our productivity: to make us emote in the right way, sympathise with the right people, adopt the correct opinions and the correct behaviours, including in the voting booth. It appears as a promotional exercise, of attempting to manufacture consensus: a combination of the priest preaching on a pulpit with the PR executive’s flair for placing a product and a big money client’s ability to fund the whole thing.

You may ask in this context: why continue waking up to 5Live’s news bulletin if this is how you feel? Why not go somewhere else? Surely, a habit can only be so strong before it breaks? 

However, instrumentalism can work both ways. Most mornings I don’t get past the first story before the “off” button is pressed and thoughts turn to the day ahead. The alarm-radio is after all primarily there as an alarm – a means to an end. And the likelihood is that it will be the last news bulletin I will encounter in the whole day.

How times change.

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