Speak for yourself

Sunday, April 16, 2006 by

“When was the last time you used a phone box?” tittered one of the presenters on BBC News 24 the other night. “Go on – have a think!” “Oooh,” the other replied, hamming it up for all they were worth, “it must be at least 10 years. How about you? When was the last time you used a phone box?” “Probably …” “Yes?” “… Probably around 10 years as well.” “Now doesn’t that seem such a long time ago?” continued the first. “But now, the weather. Darren, when was the last time you used a phone box?”

Presenters feeling the need to give us something of themselves as well as, and often instead of, merely discharing their stated duties is certainly nothing new; Clive James notes no less a figure than Alastair Burnet in 1978 interrupting a News at Ten bulletin to drawl of how “tomorrow is the longest day, which means the nights will soon be drawing in.” What was particularly notable about this specific outbreak of chatter on News 24 was the sad fact it wasn’t particularly notable. Presenters on News 24 now seem to be lapsing into the most banal and inconsequential conversations on an increasing frequent basis, with rarely-convincing enthusiasm and to ever-diminishing returns.

The trouble appears to flow from BBC Breakfast, whose twin hosts, no matter what combination, have taken the fine art of the witty aside and whimsical afterthought and flattened it into the basest of retorts and pointless of comments. They feel compelled to add their own verbal addendum to whatever report has just aired or topic they have just discussed. This wouldn’t be a problem were there not two of them, meaning the one-line response always has to become a conversation, and were they able to think of something amusing and/or insightful to say. Instead the dullest of pleasantries are exchanged, or anecdotage swapped, or – most common of all – phrases repeated and recycled endlessly (“Interesting stuff there” “Yes, very interesting. Food for thought” “Most definitely …”)

Even when talking points are supplied via the great British public, they end up being treated in much the same fashion. Emails are read out on a particular topic – say, a ban on smoking in all public places – one of which will say it is a good thing, the other claiming it is a bad thing, after which the presenters will say “a mix of opinions there.” “Yes, a real mix.” “Do keep them coming in!” “Yes, we really do like to hear from all sides of the argument …”

News 24 is hampered by a far higher quota of listless, somewhat lumpen presenters than its rival Sky News. They can’t help but make the news sound boring, repetitive and, worse of all through the endless pursuit of the off-the-cuff remark, trivial. Sky News presently walks all over News 24 in terms of personality and flair, yet has its own drawbacks in being unable to report anything without screaming BREAKING NEWS all over the screen and flinging a dozen different graphic displays at you. Its presenters are self-consciously dwarfed by all the technology around them, and can’t help but be overawed by the scale of operations and the sound of the Skycopter whirring off to the scene of the latest MAJOR DISASTER.

Rolling news has taken away from presenters the onus to be tightly whimsical and concisely capricious. Even after 10 years there has yet to emerge somebody new who can effectively work this format to their advantage and make it run on their terms. And as for the old guard, they really haven’t a hope in hell of mastering such an open-ended, unpatrolled monster. You only need to look at Peter Sissons blundering and bungling yet another weekend shift on News 24 to see that.


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