Isn’t the news terrible?

Raymond Williams

  • More Bad News
    Routledge, 502 pp, £17.50, April 1980, ISBN 0 7100 0414 1
  • The whole world is watching by Todd Gitlin
    California, 350 pp, £7.75, June 1980, ISBN 0 520 03889 4

‘I see the news is bad again.’ The banal phrase punctuates my memories of the late 1930s. I remember an adolescent anger that people would not name the things that were happening: the invasion of Austria; the cession of the Sudetenland; the invasions of Czechoslovakia and Albania – all packaged as ‘the news’. While in London it no doubt seenmed ridiculous that Chamberlain referred to Czechoslovakia as a far-off country of which we knew little or nothing. I could see, there in Wales, that what he said was true for these railwaymen and farmers, whose gravity and abstraction, at this level of affairs, at once puzzled and irritated me.

This situation is still, in general, too little understood. The banal phrase of our current years is a rhetorical question: ‘Isn’t the news terrible?’ I still sometimes make the mistake of trying to answer it, since when I have taken off the packaging some of it is not at all terrible to me; indeed, some of the most officially outraging events are positively welcome. Yet the structural problem persists, and has become more acute. In the late Thirties, after all, the wireless news of these European convulsions came only after a steady reading of the fat-stock prices. Now the bumptious arresting music, the spinning image of the world, the celebrity reader, induce forms of attention and of stress which are often justified, though the signals occur whether there is anything of substance to follow them or not. And then what we can observe, past the apparent sophistications, is a lack of human fit between exposure to reports of world-wide events and either effective knowledge, through which to try to assess them, or any effective possibility of response – some action even if it is as occasional as a vote: anything practicable, that is, beyond either spectacle or worry.

The official answer to this problem is at once easy and beside the point. It is factually true that some of these reported events could signal, through a chain of relationships, the most immediate effects, from a nuclear war through the more imaginable scales of disaster, disturbance and nuisance. Thus the public must be informed. It they do not know these connections, they must be made aware of them, or have them pointed out by our diplomatic, defence or industrial correspondents.

But this is an abstraction less forgivable than the more mundane blocking of all events as ‘the news’. Those railwaymen and farmers did not need to be told that distant events could end in their own bodies. Some of them, including my father, still carried in their flesh the wounds of the wanton metal that had attended the last demonstration of relationships and consequences. It was not, then as now, the gravity of generalised attention that was lacking. Instead, now as then, the news was received, accurately if too simply, as alien: not just because it was coming from places and peoples of which there was no direct knowledge, beyond these isolated reports, but also because its mode of communication was not that of people talking, questioning, moving across to talk or listen to others, as in everyday practice and knowledge, but was this authoritative transmission – an authority without rivals and beyond effective challenge, imposing itself professionally, in every signal, accent and tone, upon the near and the far.

Let us face it then: the news has been very bad lately. But it is very difficult to be sure how much of this badness has been in the events themselves, and how much in their intense and relentless interpretation by the authorities: a one-sided polemic which I cannot remember being at this pitch since the late Forties. Some of us, at least, must be ready to appreciate the verbal joke by the Glasgow University Media Group, whose Bad News and now More Bad News indicate the faults of news presentation rather than the import of the actual events.

To be sure, we cannot draw any firm line between events and their presentation. A very large number of the events now presented are in fact interpretations, by a small group of highly privileged voices, directly transmitted or read out by the hired celebrities. The privilege of such voices would matter less if it were not also, in the leading cases, the privilege of command of men and resources. Such privilege, now quaintly known as a ‘mandate’, even where it refers to unforeseen events on which no wider opinions have been canvassed, has to be distinguished, of course, from that of the voice alone. But then it is a very long time, in British broadcasting especially, since we heard any voice of this kind that sounded as if it were speaking quite for itself, from its own knowledge and experience. An institutional definition encloses this absence. Discussion and argument occur elsewhere, but meanwhile, here is the news.

It is, then, a major intellectual gain, in recent years, to have found ways of seeing the news as a cultural product. There is still a central difficulty. On the one hand, It is true that in some respects we have to read the news as if we were reading a novel. Until the early 18th century the word ‘novel’ carried two senses – of a tale and of what we now call the news. Spenser had written, in a sense that we might now echo, observing the arranged features of a news-reader: ‘You promise in your clear aspect, some novel.’ ‘Novelist’, in the 18th century, meant a newsmonger as well as a writer of prose fiction. But a distinction was forming between ‘fiction’ and ‘fact’, and this had serious effects, both ways, on what appear at first sight two distinct kinds of narrative. At its most confident, this assigned all novels to ‘fiction’ in the sense that the events had not occurred, but had been imagined or created: a definition that not only makes for many difficulties with the reading of certain novels of the past, from Romola to War and Peace, but is now in trouble with the arrival of the important contemporary form of the ‘novel based on a real-life event’, or ‘faction’.

Yet the worst effects were at the other end of the scale. The fact that certain events have undoubtedly occurred – have happened to people, have been observed, have been reliably reported, have been tested from the evidence of participants and witnesses – has been used to conceal or to override the equally evident fact that as they move from events to news they are being narrated, and that certain long-standing problems of narration – the identity of the narrator, his authority, his point of view, his assumed relationship to his readers or hearers, his possible wider purposes in selecting and narrating these events in this way – come inevitably into question. Most experienced adults get used to having to ask these questions, however politely or tacitly, when they hear stories and reports in everyday talk. Yet it seems that we have only to ask them about a broadcasting service or a newspaper to produce outraged cries about an assault on professional competence and independence, or to provoke dark hints, which at least sometimes are surely projections, about a conspiracy to interfere with freedom of news and indeed to manipulate or censor it.

Thus it would be reassuring to know that the minute of a high-level discussion in the BBC (quoted in the Leveller of January 1978) was inaccurate: the Director-General ‘said there would be no sense in attacking Bad News in detail ... he thought however that the ideology of sociologists was a subject which would repay a little study and hoped that it would be possible for a programme like Analysis to tackle it.’ What Analysis or some other programme might equally have tackled, down to that level of detail which is one of the surest means of testing accuracy, was the body of evidence about actual news presentations which Bad News had presented. The ‘ideology’ (ideologies) of sociologists would have been a wholly proper matter to include, not least because it would have helped to promote a genuinely critical attitude to sociological ‘findings’, which in other, happier cases – this or that poll or survey – make their unproblematic way into the news. Moreover, once discussion had begun, the problem of the ‘facts’, and the related problems of selection and interpretation, could have been rationally addressed over the whole range, in and out of university and newsroom.

There are at least two reasons why this has not happened. The first, undoubtedly, is that this kind of independent criticism is taken, almost instinctively, as a challenge to authority, of a piece with all those other challenges to authority which sociologists (by those who do not know them, but have heard the ugly word) are supposed in recent years to have been making and inciting. Yet I do not find this response, however hasty or muddled, unreasonable. What is at stake is indeed authority at its deepest level: that deep sense of propriety and legitimacy which has assigned both authority and responsibility to certain public sources of news and interpretation. These qualities are tested over the years, and over a range of events are proved to have certain reliabilities. It is then easy to move from that kind of public record to an assumption of more general authority, in which the institution comes to see itself, and to be widely seen, as an organ of the ‘national interest’, a warrant of independence and fairness, standing above the mere Ideologies which this or that minority might indulge. Anyone questioning this identity, backed as it is by a centralised and very powerful technology, and by the symbols, rhythms and timed regular occasions of public address, can rather readily be seen as a small boy throwing stones. And if he has written a fat book, full of tables and referenced details, he does not cease to be an unruly small boy: it is only that he has provided himself, for his own questionable purposes, with even more stones.

The second reason, an outraged professionalism, needs to be carefully considered. It is true that the same kind of defence is rather often rejected, by news-gatherers, when it is made by other professions. ‘What evidence do you have for saying that?’ ‘Dont’t other experts disagree with you?’ ‘Doesn’t this go against what most of us believe?’ These are the regular and admirable questions of the most persistent reported, and at their best they are asked of the most as well as the least privileged. It seems then reasonable that they should be asked, with the same persistence, of reporters, correspondents and editors themselves. And indeed it is noticeable that when a reporter has delivered a certain kind of story – when he has, say, interviewed a representative of the IRA, or a Welsh republican, or has what he takes to be secret or confidential information about some national body – he is often quite sharply interrogated, within his profession and in other ways. These are indicators of situations in which reporters have broken the consensus of ‘responsible’ news-gathering. The professional defence, of the right to establish and publish the facts, is then qualified or overridden by other criteria.

Yet what this situation most illuminates is the underlying structure of communicative relationships, within a particular social order. For there is no normal space in which news reports can be examined and interrogated, unless the consensus has been broken and other social forces move through and take it into a public, administrative or legal domain. In the ordinary rush of news reports, within the consensus, this does not often happen, though the need is as great for events within the consensus outside it.

It is at this point that the ‘sociologists’ announce themselves. The growth in media studies and cultural studies has been remarkable, in the last twenty years. A space which does not exist, to any effect, within the major news-and-opinion institutions is carved out in other institutions, mainly educational. Hence books like Bad News and More Bad News. But it is then obvious that the conditions under which such work is done are radically different from those in which the work being studied is and in most cases has to be done. It is understandable that reporters and editors, who work under considerable pressure, especially of time, are impantient when confronted by analyses of their work made by researchers who seem to have all the time in the world. I remember a related exchange between a gifted analyst of television and a gifted producer. The analyst had indicated a particular effect through a particular use of shot. ‘Tell me that,’ said the producer, ‘next time I’m filming in the rain on Liverpool Docks at five in the morning.’ But then neither position, as it stands, can be quite accepted. The effect, after all, was there, and so were the real and difficult conditions of practice. When Annan found that editors and reporters were ‘bewildered’ by the findings of Bad News, it should not have been the end of the matter. The point is to investigate the social conditions of such bewilderment.

It is just because of the immediate pressures, the difficult moment on Liverpool Docks, that a detached analysis of methods and conventions is necessary. What we do, under pressure, and especially what we do as professionals, is what we have been trained to do, what we have got used to doing, what at deep levels we can take for granted so that we can get on with an immediate job. And there is no profession which can fail to learn from someone making explicit just the training, the usage, the taking for granted, that underlie all practice. These can then be consciously affirmed, or consciously amended. This is how all rigorous professions work.

The special problem of communications is not only the relative absence of fundamental as distinct from on-the-job training. It is also that the fundamental analyses of method – for example, the quite new problems of visual presentation – are being carried out in one place, and the practice in another. Yet nothing can be understood if it is not recognised that both these real levels exist. I do not see what more the Bad News group could have done to show the intricate practical problems (highlighted, of course, by the many practical failures) of the ‘objectivity’ and ‘balance’ which the professional broadcasters claim. The greater relative monopoly of broadcast news has at least this advantage: that the greater relative diversity of the press (for all its own tendencies to monopoly and shrinkage) provides accessible evidence to test ‘objectivity’. That is well demonstrated in the reporting of the Price Commission’s calculations of the contribution of wage-rises to inflation (More Bad News, pp. 19-22), where, in complicated ways (professionally traced by the Financial Times), an estimated 20% contribution became, through various hands, a ‘between 60 and 75 pence in the pound’ contribution in a BBC news item. Given the importance of such issues, and the genuine difficulties of interpreting such statistics, within different theoretical frameworks, there is really no case at all for saying that the exigencies of practice must override fundamental questions of method. Thus, on so contentious and professional an issue, there is no defensible practical reason for leaving interpretation to the single voice of ‘our correspondent’ or to the demotic skills of a particular news-writer. Why could there not be two ‘correspondents’, deliberately chosen for their theoretical differences? Because that would be discussion? But the whole problem is the selection of one interpretation as news.

Are we then asking for the impossible, a neutral news service? The Bad News team argue that neutrality is impossible and undesirable; indeed, that it is the claim of the existing organisations that what they offer is ‘neutral, unbiased, impartial and balanced’ which is at the heart of the problem, since what happens in practice is a demonstrably ideological presentation, at many levels, which at once presumes and helps to form an effective consensus of news and other values. There can be little doubt that they have, in general, made out their case, yet where, theoretically and practically, do we go from there?

It is a further effect of the institutional division of labour that professional researchers follow the rules of their own profession, presenting and commenting on evidence, but not otherwise, except implicitly, declaring themselves. I do not blame the Bad News team for this, but I notice the contrast with say. Todd Gitlin’s The whole world is watching, where a comparable but more committed analysis is made of the American media on a specific set of issues. There the focus is on the definition and characterisation of the American New Left, and the fact that it is written by one who actively participated in the events reported, and saw not only their slanting by the media but the complex results within the movement itself, adds a welcome sharpness. I think we do have ultimately to say that the practices in question are matters of fundamental social and political conflict; though this should not prevent us from also saying that it has been an achievement of certain kinds of society, and of certain institutions and professionals, to create some space in which, over and above the conflict, the integrity of information and the actual diversity of opinion can be reasonably assured, and that we should all be looking for ways to enlarge that space to its still distant limits.

One notable opportunity for such enlargement now exists in the new communications technology, especially in the conmmon-carrier and interactive versions of teletext. It may well not be taken, given the pressure to adapt the technology to current forms of news and marketing. But there would be immediate gain if broadcast news could be, in effect, footnoted, given the developing teletext services which can both handel and recall complicated information and necessary context. Moreover, here as more generally, an enlarged space requires that diversity of channels and voices which all existing systems and their ideologies seem determined to limit, in the name of their own irreplaceable excellence. This looks like being a very long struggle, but it is worth saying, finally, that a considerable amount of that ‘terrible news’ – the events, not the reports – occurs and will continue to occur because too few people are speaking to and for too many, in conditions in which, increasingly, they nevertheless cannot prevent others from acting and failing to act. That, more than anything, is now the welcome and terrible news.