Rolling news channels tend to break big stories in a melodramatic manner that invariably recalls the ‘War!’ episode of ‘The Day Today’ because rolling news channels for most of the time are about as thrilling a viewing experience as the test card – so many hours need filling and there’s often so little to work with. Therefore, when A Major Incident occurs, they can barely contain their excitement. At last, something to justify their existence! The first rule in the Major Incident manual is that the anchors abruptly disappear from the screen and effectively become radio presenters, as though seeing their perma-tanned countenances and lacquered coiffures will somehow belittle the gravitas of the news story.
The second rule in the Major Incident manual is to cut to a reporter on the spot, often one fairly low in the reporter pecking order, but the nearest on hand. Conscious this could be their Kate Adie-in-Tiananmen Square moment, their lack of experience is evident in the way they can’t keep a lid on the hyperbole by describing events in terms of ‘nothing like this has ever happened before’; there are also usually awkward-on-camera eyewitnesses shoved into shot for said reporter to quiz, ones whose accounts climax with the reporter asking them ‘how they feel’, as though they’ve just spoken to the Queen on a royal walkabout.
The visual lexicon of rolling news clichés roll on – there’s mobile phone footage shot in the wrong aspect ratio; there’s an expert in the studio the presenter can interview; there’s another expert down the line; there’s the distracting Sky Sports ‘Soccer Saturday’-style info blazing a trail along the bottom of the screen, basically repeating what we’ve already been told; there’s a ‘greatest hits’ compilation of images lasting around three minutes – aerial shots, people running away from whatever happened, police and ambulance crews doing for real what they’ve been though in endless hours of training, general panic and confusion – and it’s played out on a loop as speculation reigns. Throw in the phrase ‘Terror Incident’ to hammer home how serious this all is for good measure. As a means of finding out precisely what the hell is going on, one might as well consult the entrails of a sheep.
Following a phone-call, I stuck BBC1 on this afternoon and found it had turned into the BBC News Channel. From what I could gather, some nutter had driven his car into pedestrians on Westminster Bridge, exited his vehicle brandishing a knife, stabbed a copper, ran towards the Palace of Westminster, stabbed another copper, and was then cut down by an armed copper before he could get anywhere near Parliament. There was a report one member of the public was dead as a result of what happened on Westminster Bridge and an equally grim report that there was a body in the Thames. It would seem this was classified as a ‘terror incident’ rather than a knife crime on account of the incident’s location. I don’t know if there’s some sort of invisible demarcation line in London whereby, depending what side of it you’re on, the distinction is evident.
At the time of writing, the assailant’s identity has not been revealed. If he’s called Mohammed, I would guess that fits the terrorist bill; but as with any story of this gruesome nature, I wouldn’t expect to know many details so early after it taking place. Tuning into a rolling news channel in the thick of it is probably the worst way of trying to find out; the dazzling recycling of the same images over and over again intensifies rather than eases the viewer’s sense of bewilderment, while reporters not much more informed than the members of the public surrounding them are trying their best to give the impression they are. It’s like they’ve bragged they can recite a particularly lengthy poem, but when they get the chance to do so they don’t actually know it word-for-word.
JG Ballard famously opined that, for him, sensationalistic reportage of violent events began with the JFK assassination, which may well be true, though he lived most of his adult life in a pre-24 hour news TV age. Bar the old-school newsflash, which would interrupt a scheduled programme for a few minutes to report a breaking news story and then announce more details would follow on ‘The Nine O’Clock News’ a few hours later, the first time I remember a live event taking over the telly was the climax of the Iranian Embassy Siege in 1980, when the dramatic actions of the SAS in rescuing the hostages were just about Bond-like enough to vindicate the interruption and keep viewers watching. But it was a hardly a regular occurrence, more of an aberration in the way stories were covered.
As far as I can recall, the inaugural moment when the style of presentation viewers were again served up today gate-crashed mainstream television was 9/11; since then, any sign of an incident that can have ‘terror’ attached to it has warranted the same treatment. The problem is that nobody really knows what’s going on, certainly not in the first couple of hours following it, anyway. Sometimes, a degree of distance is required to provide a more measured response, but competing rolling news channels can’t afford to do that, so they have to keep showing the same images, repeating the same unconfirmed reports and indulging in speculative guess-work based on what they have so far. It’s not a very satisfactory source of information, to say the least.
It’s pointless me joining in the speculation with this post because I’m no more clued-up than you (if you’re reading it not long after I posted it, of course); I wrote it because I just find the reporting of these events in the immediate aftermath of them taking place incredibly frustrating and liable to induce the feeling of how the world is going to hell in a handcart, something I might not necessarily feel a few hours later when a clearer picture emerges. But the sad fact is we’re now all programmed to reach for the TV remote when we hear A Major Incident has happened, even if doing so leaves us none the wiser.
© The Editor