W(h)ither journalism?

I inadvertently caught a small amount of the 10 o’clock news last night – I know, I really shouldn’t be ramping my blood pressure at that time of night.  At the risk of returning to a furrow which has already seen more than its fair share of the plough (or possibly a bear, we astronomers find them so hard to tell apart), I feel a polemic coming on…

Those following the UK news may be aware that the government is intending to make changes to the planning system.  We will pause here to briefly note the irony of the words ‘government’ and ‘planning’ sharing a sentence without an odd number of negatives being involved.  I think it would be uncontroversial to say that this intention is not universally popular, with some fairly big guns lining up to oppose it.  In such circumstances, this government displays one of two responses: (A) completely ditch the policy and do something else (probably even less well thought-out, assuming that is possible) or (B) ignore the criticisms (however valid) and carry on regardless.  It would appear that on this occasion option B is to be the favoured one (or, perhaps, not to be – by the time you read this © Hamlet).

I am no expert on the planning system – one of rather few things I have in common with the current government (I did not, for example, go to Eton – I’ve never come closer than Slough – and nor am I a millionaire) – and so cannot say for sure whether the government or its critics are correct.  However, I am somewhat of an expert on the UK electricity sector and the government is also planning to make changes here.  These changes seem singularly poorly thought-out (and I may be overly generous to include the verb ‘to think’ here) and have been very well critiqued by the Energy Select Committee.  Despite this, the government has also gone with option B in this case – its fingers have been inserted very firmly into its metaphorical ears and it is saying la-la-la as loudly as possible.  As a result, I think it would be wise to start turning the heating and the lights down now, so that we will have acclimatised to sitting in the cold and dark ahead of the electricity running out (it will also be a good way to save some cash).  Now, it may be that whilst the government struggles to distinguish the mid-arm joint from the gluteus maximus in the world of energy, it is fully competent elsewhere – however, I suspect that its incompetence is relatively equally distributed across the entire range of its activities (perhaps with some local maxima – certainly, this would be an accurate description of my own incompetence).  Whilst I may seem to be picking on the current government, I am not convinced it is any more incompetent that its predecessors – just more topical.  Be that as it may, given my suspicions about the distribution of incompetence in policy making, I am forced to rely on the fourth estate to explain the potential changes to the planning system, their likely impact and any issues or unintended consequences which may arise.  As the regular reader may have guessed, last night’s news served up only the bitter gruel of disappointment to those hoping for the sweet nourishment of such enlightenment.

The full extent of the journalism related to the planning system – as displayed on the news – seemed to comprise the following:

  • skimming a government press release,
  • finding the most virulently opposed organisation and garnering a quote from them (likely also from a press release) – this provides ‘balance’ apparently,
  • writing a short ‘piece to camera’ based on these two documents,
  • hiring a helicopter, and
  • giving the piece to camera whilst flying over some fields in the aforementioned paraffin budgie.

Now, I know some people don’t get out much, but surely almost everyone has seen a field – if not, the BBC must have many acres of stock footage (can you have an acre of footage?  Or is something awry with the dimensionality?) of fields: perhaps more such acreage then the country has fields!  Surely Countryfile must have something?  Using such footage would have saved the time and cost involved in hiring a helicopter – and then this time and money could perhaps have been used to actually understand the changes proposed to the planning system and then explain the key features (along with any potential issues) to the great unwashed (within which camp I include myself).  This process used to be called journalism and was quite popular back in the day – but now seems to have fallen into disuse.  To be honest, I am quite capable of reading two press releases for myself (and, if pushed, cutting-and-pasting them together) – and, given the budget, could probably hire a helicopter (I do have very modest form in the field) – and so really don’t need someone else to do it for me.  In fact, having written the odd press release in my time, I really wouldn’t advise anyone to use them as their primary source of information about the world: they are written to a rather specific brief, which is rarely to spread enlightenment.

In this time of belt tightening – of the type traditionally associated with the magical bifurcation of a glamorous assistant, but without the subsequent re-assembly associated with the conjuror – would this not be an excellent opportunity to cut back on pointless but expensive travel and helicopter hire and return to the much cheaper virtues of actual journalism?  We might even produce a better informed and more engaged electorate as a consequence and, in the very long term, some rather better thought-out legislation.  But, I suspect this is never going to happen: I rather fear the last things to be cut from the news budget will be the pointless live pictures of a ‘journalist’ standing in a vaguely relevant location and overblown computer graphics which will still be standing long after the last vestiges of ‘news’ have fled.

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