Wednesday, 27 August 2008


This year the ITV network restored its News at Ten programme. It is presented by Sir Trevor McDonald and when announced cynicism was in the air, as the announcement happened to coincide with the latest phone line scandals to hit the network.

The once-highly-admired News of Ten was restored and it has been interesting to see how it fared against the BBC's 10pm bulletin. It has bombed! Where it's other news is highly influenced by celebrity material? In the main area where the two networks go head to head - over the cornflakes and coffee. The serious stuff at ten is not ITV's cup of espresso.

Celebrity news, red carpet events and reality television dominate GMTV's breakfast programme. There appear to be more 'Showbusiness Reporters' than 'War Correspondents'. Their argument will be that: they have recognised that the mass market is both influenced by and interested in celebrity and have chosen their editorial accordingly. Breakfast Time, meanwhile, tows the traditional BBC line and concentrates mainly on harder news. The final 30 minutes of the weekday show is usually given over to lighter news and entertainment items but in general it keeps to this agenda.

By looking, in depth, at both channels' viewers it would be easy to identify their core audiences and the differences therein. However the picture blurs and will undoubtedly change over coming years. It is also important to ask whether, indeed, GMTV has looked at the mass market and identified that their audience wants a celebrity-driven news show or whether the publicity arm of celebrity has compromised the news media by putting forward more and more celebrity news.

The effect of celebrity will continue to influence the news media but to what extent. Firstly there is the potential "ghettoising" of serious news programmes. It has recently been announced that billions of pounds need to be cut from the BBC's schedules with ten per cent of content to be slashed. This has led to fears that their 24-hour news channel BBC News 24 may suffer in favour of celebrity-led programmes such as Strictly Come Dancing. It may also lead to news being considered an elitist market as a small percentage of the market seek out the serious news programmes such as Newsnight and Channel 4 News. There may also be the case where the BBC decides that if you can't beat the dumbing-down then you may as well join them.

With 60-second news spots on BBC3 and it cannot escape anybody's notice that the BBC's recently-departed presenter Natasha Kaplinsky was a contestant on Strictly Come Dancing. This has brought up a number of conundrums.

Firstly her winning performance on the programme may now mean that she is known as "that woman that won the dancing thing" rather than the winner of the 'Newscaster of the Year' at the annual Television and Radio Industries Club awards.

The broadcaster Mark Lawson said: "Views within BBC News are strongly divided as to the wisdom of allowing - and indeed encouraging - news presenters to venture into non-news areas.

"Leaving aside professional jealousy, some BBC journalists feel a presenter's authority is diminished when they take on entertainment roles.

"Some cringe when they see Andrew Marr or Jeremy Vine donning fishnet tights or punk garb for the now seemingly obligatory newsroom turn for Children In Need.

"Others - including many viewers -see it as a highlight of the show and a sign that newsreaders are human after all."

Of course newsreaders carrying out a song and dance is nothing new as Angela Rippon galvanised the public's attention when she appeared on the institution that was the Morecambe and Wise Christmas show almost 30 years ago. Kaplinsky, Bill Turnbull and other newsreaders that have crossed over to entertainment may, in fact, have introduced a new generation to the more serious news format from the BBC.

There is also the question as to whether gossip and celebrity is simply not just another form of news. Who are we to say whether it is less important than so-called hard news? It has long been a part of print journalism as society pages were filled with the gossip of the upper echelons. Maybe the 3AM girls in The Mirror are simply the Nigel Dempster's of today. The celebrity - if they are only a Victoria Beckham lookalike from Doncaster - may be looked upon with the same awe that the readers once looked on the debutantes of the 1950's.

The former television and radio producer Bob Meyrowitz said back in 2000. "It's interesting because gossip is a well-recognized and well-established form of journalism,

"We'd just like to see it get more respect."

As for the future it is hard to tell which way the news format will evolve. If we concede that the print industry preceded television with celebrity reporting it can now be seen that sales of celebrity magazines and hits on celebrity internet sites are slowing down and in some cases falling.

Whether falling magazine sales will translate into a less celebrity-led television news time alone will tell. In Britain it may just take an event like the (possible eventual) outcome of the Madeleine McCann case to test television's resolve. It began as a hard news story but has evolved into a real conundrum for some television companies and programmes that allowed themselves to be used by the McCanns as they encouraged the media to report their case and had people within the media (in some cases) funding their cause. Here were official suspects using PR to put across their counter defence in the British media. They are using and have been using publicity to put their point across in the same way that Victoria Beckham does when she wants the world to know about "her David".

It was reported by the likes of GMTV and SKY News in a breezy, celebrity way. Now as the messy affair grinds to a halt and the tragic disappearance of a little girl still remains unsolved, maybe certain news channels may look back and consider the way they report news and the content they use. If the unthinkable happens and the parents were in some way involved in their daughter's disappearance then the moment that "Kate and Gerry" became "The McCanns" in the news reports may have just been the moment when broadcasters ought to consider the implications of celebrity and celebrity culture dominating news bulletins.

However with the case being put on hold in Portugal and the McCanns having their arguido status removed they are back to being Kate and Gerry with their ringmaster Clarence Mitchell pulling the strings again. The messy affair continues. The blurred line of celebrity and news is as ever. As Big Brother dominates the pages of the Daily Star and David Beckham edges ever nearer to his 100th cap for England when a blind man can see he's not capable of playing at that level anymore it could be some time before news is reported in the way some of us would deem it acceptable.

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