Grisly but gripping

Ok. So the news. Yeah? The thing I’m here to moan about?

Well I’m starting to think it doesn’t actually exist except as some sort of unobtainable ideal. A concept used to justify theoretical jousting. Like the way ‘perfect competition’ underpins the machinations of global capitalism and a ‘socialist utopia’ is the aim of well-intentioned left leaners like myself. These things don’t exist, except in the writing and theory of those who expound their system, but people still build stuff up around them anyway.

Here's a picture of Thomas More. The first Anarchist

The news is the same. It sits there on this high horse of dispassionate objective reporting which throws a thin veil over emotive string-pulling and dedicated editorial agendas.

Ok so I’m not saying anything new here am I? I mean this is largely the point of my blog? To rail against the inaccuracy and inability of the media to even attempt to stick to the values they uphold. But when you have an event like the M5 crash at the weekend you really only hope that the news can do its job unambiguously and actually report the facts.

So when I turn on the news to find out what’s going on why am I subjected to reportage that is so horrifically exploitative that I need to turn it off before I smash my telly into a heap of glass and metal?

You can see twisted metal all over the internet so instead I'll just put a picture of some kittens in cups

I didn’t dare switch sky on. The sky coptor would no doubt be out showing twisted wreckage with a sombre voice-over describing every injury with the morbid relish of a jackanory narrator in an abattoir (I’m thinking of Kenneth Brannagh’s running commentary to the Great War in colour). But the BBC was no better. In many ways it was worse. Reportage of this event. Which killed seven and injured fifty-one was akin to a dramatisation, or an episode of casualty. Hyberbole narrative interspersed with meaningless but emotionally charged vox pops and amateur footage shot on the mobile phones of passengers driving the other way is surely not the way to report am event as news. But that’s what they did.

You could taste the saliva of the reporter as he exclaimed the word ‘fireball’ over and over again. You could imagine tearful viewers all over the country aimlessly sympathising with eyewitness accounts of horror and heroism. Then there was the footage. Grainy images of flames and smoke and the audible ‘oh my gods’ of the person filming it. No doubt slowing down to gawp before pressing on to their destination with a story to tell their friends.

Whenever this happens there is a human angle. That human angle is the loss of life and injury. The sheer aggregate is surely enough. People should realise that seven deaths indicates a very bad crash. But the news only seems to want to press this home with individual accounts.

Vox pops are the dirtiest and laziest form of media journalism around. News reporters unable to garner intelligent insight from proper sources and insight will grab a few rentamouths and use them as buffer to fill the airwaves. As an exercise in journalism it’s probably diverting for political reporters to give a “street view” of events in parliament. It’s also acceptable to use in local news or human interest stories. Those people walking round town centres with a microphone asking what you think of the new one-way system? They don’t care what you think of the new one way system – they just want some “real” person to spout something listenable about it. That’s fine. That’s a vox pop! 

The problem is that vox pops have grown now to straddle all the news, not just the trivial. So when we have a disaster as upsetting as multiple deaths in a motorway crash we cannot get through the event without an intensely personal angle being crowbarred in. Seven dead and fifty-one injured is just not considered to have enough impact. Journalists using the book of revelations as their source material for narrative to the accident still doesn’t drive it home. Nor do the horrific images of twisted metal and burning cars. The press need to make it personal. We need to hear people talking about WHAT THEY SAW and HOW THEY FELT.

Now if I’d been in an accident and seen lots of people injured and dying the last thing I’d want to do is relive it. Let alone relive it in a pre-recorded interview in the comfort of my own living room. Whenever you see a vox-pop like this try to imagine how it’s arranged. The journalist will approach a survivor and ask them for an interview. The survivor will agree (why?). The journalist will set a time and a place and send a camera crew round to ask some questions. Very cold, very dispassionate, nothing like the stated aim of a vox-pop. Even the stuff they pick up at the scene of an accident is usually just gawpers looking to get on camera. The same people you probably see in the background pulling faces, while reporters sombrely report the number of deaths.

For the print media human interest can become even more cynically delivered. The Daily Mail today ran a front page focussing on one person, in a coma, orphaned by the crash. Forget the seven deaths. Lets focus on one person and what she’s lost. A young lady. Just so we can get a picture of a pretty young lady (in a coma) on our front page. How very sensitive. To seek to give a “face” to an accident that claimed seven lives and then decide exactly what face that should be in terms of your core readership.

Shame on you Daily Mail (again)

Of course the “whys” of the accident seem to take second stage to the human angle. In the fallout people are asking if smoke from a local firework display caused the accident. Well maybe it did. Or maybe people were driving too fast and recklessly? Occam’s razor would hint more towards the latter. Our roads regularly have accidents caused by people driving faster than they should. But since the press are largely supportive of proposed legislation to raise (not lower) speed limits this sort of thing gets brushed under the carpet a little.

Blaming the firework display is much more expedient for now. Although the Daily Mail should be careful here. I can imagine the headlines next year – when the deaths and injuries are long forgotten “Elf and Safety Madness Cancels Charity Firework Display – Local display cancelled because of proximity to roads” – Think I’m joking? The Daily Mail ran an article earlier this year blaming school closures for a pupil dying after being struck by a falling branch – despite previously running a campaign railing against “elf and safety nazis” for advocating the pruning back of dangerous trees.


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