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Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Do journalists need a 24-hour news agenda?

Is there anything in human nature that says we ‘need’ 24-hour rolling news?
Of course not, the factor that determines whether or not we ‘need’ 24-hour news is financial.
Like Gucci bags or the Apple ‘tablet’, 24-hour news is a commodity, created in the market place and consumed by customers. It is possible to envisage a life without 24-hour news, as it is possible to envisage a life without a mobile phone or a 150 gigabite mp3 player.
However, once the Pandora’s Box of this ‘need’ has been opened, it is difficult to shut it again (though the thought of stuffing 24-hour news into a box, slamming its lid and straddling it like an overloaded suitcase, does have cathartic appeal).

Anyway I ask this question about 24-hour news because of an exchange on the radio this morning between two Today Programme journalists (well one a journalist, Norman Smith, the other, the presenter Justin Webb). The exchange took place in response to a report by the Better Government Initiative which suggests, (among its many findings which the BBC to its credit also covered) that rolling 24-hour news might be having a negative impact on the decisions politicians make.

During the exchange Mr Smith described the civil servants’ report as a ‘lament about modernity,’ [cue eye-rolling in the studio] conjuring the idea that civil servants who bemoan 24-hour news might be nostalgic for a ‘more sedate’ age when the business of state was conducted differently old chap.

Now I don’t want to get bogged down in the well-worn ethical discussion about whether or not news ought to consist of a journalist interviewing a fellow journalist about a story that could be seen as critical of other journalists in general. I also don’t want to go on about the ‘false consciousness’ that journalists seem to suffer on this issue. Isn’t 24-hour news a product? In principle, might not journalists have reservations about 24-hour news themselves? Is it the 24-hour news agenda itself that results in a situation in which journalists - starved of contacts willing to appear on the Today Programme at 7am – resort to interviewing each other?

What a rubbish argument. We have already established that 24-hour news cannot be stuffed back into a box. But what we have not established clearly is the effect a rolling 24-hour news agenda can have on the quality of the decision-making process.
The report by the Better Government Initiative, far from advocating a return to a ‘more sedate’ age, merely asks whether we need to, at least consider, what effect the media has in influencing the poor decisions that politicians sometimes make.

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