Dog bites man

30 August 2009

journalist_at_work

When I was a trainee journalist, we went through that exercise where we worked out what news was. “Dog bites man” happens quite a lot, so obviously isn’t news. “Man bites dog” is unusual, so probably is.

But of course, it doesn’t actually work like that. When Rupert Murdoch’s son James, now responsible (among other things) for protecting and promoting the commercial interests of one of the largest pay-TV operators in Europe, uses a lecture platform to make a meretricious, and substantially misleading attack on the BBC, it is widely reported as ‘news’.

And without getting into the detail (though Will Hutton has a good critique), James Murdoch has worked in the UK long enough to know the difference between a publicly-funded independent broadcaster and a state-controlled broadcaster, but this is exactly the sort of smearing elision that you see all the time of the Murdoch-controlled Fox News. (Blogger Tom Freeman described the speech as “laughable hypocrisy“.)

What actually happens in a newsroom is that the daily news agenda is driven by the news editor’s “forward diary”, which mostly details the comings, goings and pronouncements of the powerful and the official. Reporters are assigned as a result of this to cover the expected stories, most of which are more about dogs biting men than the other way around. And even ‘unexpected’ news stories, such as earthquakes, have their own expected dynamics; eight days or so afterwards, inevitably, there will be a miraculous rescue of a survivor who’s been trapped in the rubble. Michael Frayn captured this predictable aspect of journalism, hilariously, in his novel The Tin Men.

There’s a better quote about news gathering, from memory, from a disaffected member of the White House press corps: “What reporters do is to hang around the corridors of power waiting for important people to lie to them.”

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