Former BBC News, Channel 4 News and Question Time presenter Peter Sissons has warned of the dangers of rolling news and video footage sent in by viewers, commenting that “more news isn’t better news” and observing that social networks’ reputation as egalitarian, democratic forums is an illusion.
“Certain stuff is getting on air before people are sure of what it means,” said Sissons, talking on stage at the Cheltenham Literature Festival. “More and more amateur footage from people’s mobile phones is used, and the BBC will say: ‘We can’t verify these pictures.’ There used to be a time when the BBC had nothing on air unless it had been verified by two major agencies.”
Most “citizen journalism” spreads via social networking websites, which Sissons is broadly in favour of – although he counselled that it’s dangerous to think of them as a source of grass-roots information. “Sites like Twitter can be very useful, but there are huge dangers,” he said. “At the moment, it seems the good guys are using Twitter and Facebook to publicise where they’re at and the injustices they suffer. When the bad guys catch on, it’ll be a gift to them. Think what Dr Goebbels would have done with Twitter and Facebook! The stuff he could have fed you to confuse you.
“The bad guys have been behind the game and long may it stay that way, but I have very grave doubts about the increasing use of unverified material presented as news.”
Sissons said the culture of rolling, 24-hour news is the root cause of the problem, and that old-fashioned, careful journalism is the answer. “More news isn’t better news,” he commented. “I did 24-hour news for five years – I wanted to do it, because it was the one thing I hadn’t done. And you can’t put the genie back in the bottle. But it does put reporters under tremendous pressure to make instant judgements.
“They’re tied to their satellite truck and can’t leave it to check what the story is. You find yourself telling them from London what’s going on, because in London you’ve got all the news agency video coming in. The BBC has some superb reporters, who keep the flame of journalism alive despite all the politics of TV Centre: Gavin Hewitt, John Simpson, Bridget Kendall. They really know their stuff and they keep the BBC at the forefront of world journalism.
“But they’re all deeply reflective people. 24-hour news asks them to say, instantly, more than they’d like to say. The more experienced journalists aren’t drawn into that trap. John Simpson is the most cautious of reporters: when he’s put on the spot he will not play ball with studio presenters who over-dramatise stuff. The counter-balance to rolling news is the really experienced reporter who will not be drawn to say more than he knows.”
Sissons, whose book When One Door Closes is a memoir of his career as a news journalist for ITN and the BBC, also lambasted younger newsreaders for not engaging with the stories they read out. “Some presenters these days can’t stop smiling, regardless of what the news is. Their expression doesn’t change from one news story to another, even though one may be the football results and the other some dreadful disaster or tragedy.”
Another modern trend in TV news which Sissons is wary of is the practice of anchoring bulletins from abroad when a big foreign story breaks. “I was always against taking the news on the road,” he said. “You’re vulnerable to technical breakdown. By the time you get there, there might be a bigger story somewhere else. And the local reporter resents the fact that you bigfoot him. He knows far more about the story, he knows all the local people. I always felt very sorry for the bureau correspondent when the big guy from London arrived.”
Radio Times is a media partner at the Cheltenham Literature Festival, which runs until 16 October.