Thoughts on British TV coverage of the war so far

It always amazes me that many intelligent people devote a large amount of their time to watching the news on TV. Even when it isn't obsessed with sport and celebrity gossip, sensationalism and violent crime, or reporting the minutiae of some political squabble that will have little effect on government policy and less on the nation as a whole, the entire business of TV reporting seems little more than a machine designed to promote despair, boredom and passivity in its viewers.

Whether it is the commercial news, ratings-hungry and scared to report anything that the viewer isn't already aware of, or the more serious broadcasts that are largely comprised of uninformative interviews in which politicians fail to answer questions, and interviewers only ask the questions they know they won't get an answer to, the basic standard is the same. They refuse to cover a story unless they have nice pictures, ignore most foreign stories and domestic stories from outside the metropolitan centres (London for national news, Edinburgh and Glasgow for Scottish broadcasts), and never explain the consequences of any event.

And this always gets worse at times of national importance, when the TV channels feel duty-bound to fill the airwaves with even more contentless broadcasts. You can divide the coverage on terrestrial channels like BBC1, ITV into two categories. Firstly there is the rolling news, in which they make a desperate attempt to pad the airways by showing any of the few photographs and video clips they have and invite a panel of seemingly unprepared people to speculate on the contents. Secondly, there are the regular news broadcasts, in which they attempt to summarise the day's events, limited to the extent that they know what happened, have some kind of video footage, and are able to communicate it with flashy graphics.

So, to take yesterday as an example, we had the BBC attempt to explain how an American missile could shoot down a British plane, concluding in the news anchor explaining that non military personnel couldn't possibly comprehend the complexity of events in southern Iraq; which of course is true when TV news people make no attempt to communicate the complexities. We have footage from Iraq of people searching rivers that the reporters have no idea what it is about. We have half an hour spent discussing a few photos of bombs being loaded onto B-52 bombers, the experts unsure what the bombs are or what they might be used for.

The focus on as-it-happens reporting means that nobody has taken the trouble to consider how any news story should be presented. There is no attempt to present argument or narrative. Experts have factoids shoved in their faces and are required to improvise responses on the spot, and there is no chance to give background or to subsequently improve on muddled first impressions.

And the prime-time bulletins are little better. Television viewers are used to the device in which a newscaster in the studio interviews a reporter two miles away, but even the reporters thousands of miles away, actually in Iraq, appear to have little more knowledge than the folks back home.

For various reasons, news reporters have no idea what is going on in Iraq, particularly in the North. They cannot see things independently, and cannot be certain of the truth of what they are told. Gaps are filled by the speculation of alleged experts, repeatedly asked what they would do in the circumstances, and there are reports from the Middle East, in which reporters censored by either the Iraqi government or the US armed forces try and explain what they saw in the few stage-managed photo-opportunities they were allowed to visit. Instead of facts, we get endless rumour, such as the constant "is that really Saddam in that video?" speculation.

The result is a stream of news that does nothing but promote hopelessness, despair and fatalism. TV excels at this anyway: it allows no control by the viewer over the medium and promotes in its rolling structure an endless flow of tragedy unrelieved by catharsis. To some extent this can be explained as presenting the ideal audience of zombies to advertisers, but the problem is far deeper than that and extends onto channels not funded by advertising.

It is an essential quality of the continual one-to-many medium of TV. If you read a newspaper or web site or book, then for all the possible bias, you are able to explore in more detail the topics that interest you, re-read things you do not understand, check one source against another. Even though the process of constantly refreshing a website has a similar dynamic to sitting staring at the rolling news, you are not so constrained by the lowest-attention-span, lowest-comprehension limits of the TV. Television doesn't distort reality so much as elide it entirely. You would be struggling to find a single fact on the news: maybe they will manage to tell you the name on a body bag.

It is a tragic irony that TV reporters are being killed in Iraq to bring us this little. All their efforts serve no greater end. To watch the television news is to surrender to the force of despair, to be swept along all day by the tantalising promise of facts and never learn anything. If you want anything to happen you need the broadcasts to stop. Turn off your television. I'll meet you in the streets.