Here is the unhappy news
When top BBC newsreader Martyn Lewis first argued that tele-vision should
broadcast less bad news and more 'happy news', it was treated as a bit of
a joke by media insiders. But it is not funny.
The emphasis on 'happy news' is the fashionable face of censorship; not
the crude bans of a police state, but the more subtle process of controlling
the way in which information is presented. And enthusiasm for 'happy news'
is not the preserve of a middle-aged school prefect like Lewis. It is becoming
official BBC policy, and being taken on board by broadcasters everywhere.
Lewis made his original call for a change in the way news is broadcast back
in May, when he told American journalism students how, with 'depressing
regularity', viewers asked him, 'why is the news so gloomy? Why don't you
give us more good news?'.
By August, senior figures from the BBC were telling the Edinburgh International
Television Festival that Lewis was essentially right. In future the news,
said Sir Graham Hills, BBC governor for Scotland, should 'give a better
view of the world we live in'. Tim Orchard, editor of the BBC's One O'clock
News, assured delegates that the corporation had effectively begun to
implement the 'happy news' policy, by scaling down the violence in news
Lewis himself has been keen to dismiss claims that he wants the news to
be filled with cute stories about cats and dogs (although he is less keen
to mention his authorship of a compilation of those Rantzenesque 'and finally...'
bits from the end of evening news bulletins). He says that issues like the
war in Bosnia should remain high on the news agenda, but that broadcasters
must also accentuate the positive stories.
All of which may sound unobjectionable to some. And indeed, the idea of
playing up the positive news might be fair enough if we lived in a positive,
forward-looking society. But what can the notion of more 'happy news' mean
in the context of today, when we are in the middle of an economic slump
and the world order is breaking down in conflict from Bosnia to Somalia?
What can the notion of more 'happy news' mean in an age of depression where
wage cuts are two-a-penny in Britain or America, and in Africa life is even
cheaper than that. Against such a background, pointing up 'happy news' must
mean playing down the problems of international capitalism. Stripped of
the smiles and the viewer-friendly presentation, 'happy news' serves as
subtle propaganda protecting the interests of those who own and control
Take the examples of 'happy news' which Martyn Lewis offered, in his original
speech back in May, as the kind of stories which ought to be given more
high-profile coverage. Among other stories, he mentioned the fact that a
car manufacturer had announced record profits, the fact that British Aerospace
had won a new order, and a report that EC finance ministers had been talking
up the prospects for the European economy.
These reports read like a pile of corporate press packs, the sort of puffed-up
bumpf which is normally the preserve of hired company guns from the public
relations industry. Elevating such pieces of soft soap into major items
of hard news is far more serious than reporting on trivia like dancing dogs
and singing cats.
When Lewis calls for more emphasis on the good news from the car or aerospace
industries - the rise in profits for the directors and shareholders - he is
also saying that we should hear less about the boring old 'gloomy' news:
the big job losses, wage cuts and shopfloor speed-ups on which those new
profits are based.
And when Lewis suggests that news broadcasts should give more prominence
to positive statements from European economics ministers, he is also implying
that they should play down the negative aspects of EC capitalism: like the
little matter of a continent-wide recession and about 17m officially unemployed.
Seen through the smiling eyes of Martyn Lewis, the world of television news
becomes a virtual reality zone, where the colours are a little brighter
and the people a little happier than in the real world, where we live. And
if our experience of life in this society does not quite correspond to the
images we see on television, the message of 'happy news' is that it must
be our own fault, since other people (like motor corporation directors and
EC ministers) clearly have good things to shout about.
In August, while top BBC executives and governors were announcing their
conversion to the 'happy news' formula, Lewis was warming to his theme of
the need to focus more on the few success stories in society today. 'We
categorise, for example, young people as joyriders and criminals', he complained,
'while there are not many stories about young people winning top awards
and really achieving things in life'.
Lewis is not, of course, against the categorisation of young people as criminals
which is now a standard news item. He simply wants broadcasters to show
the other side of the story, too. The fact that the vast majority of young
people are stuck in youth training schemes, dead-end jobs or run-down colleges
with no possibility of 'winning top awards and really achieving things'
doesn't really matter. The important thing is to highlight the handful who
do get on - like, presumably, the young entrepreneurs who go into business
with the help of Lewis' favourite charity, the Prince's Trust. The result
of playing up these glowing reports will be to hide the waste of the rest
of a generation in the shadows.
Perhaps the consequences of the 'happy news' approach are clearest in reporting
on international affairs. When they are dealing with events on the other
side of the world, which happen outside of their audience's immediate experience,
the broadcasting organisations have more license to dictate the tone of
coverage. Here, the emphasis upon 'happy news' can only reinforce the existing
tendency to portray everything that the Western powers do around the world
in the most positive light possible.
In this respect it was instructive that, when the BBC newsmen in Edinburgh
were explaining their commitment to show less violence, the example of unacceptable
images they used was a film of the carnage inside a Baghdad civilian air-raid
shelter, bombed by the Americans during the Gulf War.
A month later, the 'happy news' doctrine was in evidence again in the contrasting
coverage of events in the Middle East and in Africa. The specially extended
news bulletins could not contain their delight at the outbreak of peace
between the Palestinians and Israelis (a 'peace' based, as argued elsewhere
in Living Marxism, on the continued denial of freedom to Palestine).
But those same bulletins included only a few embarrassed mumbles (and fewer
pictures) about the way in which American 'peacekeepers' in Somalia had
killed another 100 civilians in a helicopter gunship attack. Well, it would
have spoiled the party, wouldn't it?
This is the way in which censorship is advancing today: not just through
bans and proscriptions, but through the more rigorous control and manipulation
of that information which they do let us see.
The growing influence of the 'happy news' approach is one aspect of the
problem. Another is the recent instruc-tion from BBC governors that Lewis'
colleagues like Jeremy Paxman should give government ministers an easier
time in interviews. Another is the culture of conformity, in which there
are more and more television channels available, broadcasting less and less
critical coverage or investigative reports.
There is a crying need today to challenge the stifling atmosphere of censorship
and conformity which hangs over every public discussion. Without the encouragement
of more critical and open debate, the proponents of 'happy news' will be
able to exercise monopoly control over the terms on which issues are raised
People are not stupid; they do not automatically believe everything which
Martyn Lewis and his chums care to tell them. But if that version of events
is the only one on offer, then it will win out by default, and those in
authority who have made the lives of millions decidedly unhappy will be
let off the hook.
The first thing we need to do is to stand up and tell the unhappy news about
what is really happening in the world today: tell the unhappy news about
the continuing capitalist slump, in the face of all their flannel about
the recovery; tell the unhappy news about Western barbarism around the world,
and challenge the distortions about peace in the Middle East or UN peacekeeping
in the third world.
Living Marxism exists to tell the unhappy news that others think
is too nasty for your ears. Our aim is not to make people miserable; the
government and employers need no help from us in that department. It is
to expose the truth about capitalism, in order to point the way towards
a positive alternative.
Living Marxism is committed to standing against the tide of conformity,
opposing all censorship and control of information. And we stand fully behind
initiatives like the Angle gallery in Birmingham, now under imminent threat
of eviction because of its record of putting on exhibitions which the powers
that be don't want people to see.
Let's tell it like it is, and wipe the smile off Martyn Lewis' face.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 60, October 1993