Sunday, June 06, 2010

today : the speed of the machine

Did we used to be so immediate? Did everything always happen on a minute by minute basis or has that only happened in recent times.

I ask this because I squirmed at the fact that a pro-gun guy was being interviewed on the TV on Wednesday evening - about 4 hours after the Cumbria massacres. He was forced to defend the ownership and use of rifles and shotguns. His argument was that any ban would impact Olympic sports. All this while the blood was still cooling on the streets of the Lake District. I cannot imagine that he volunteered for it (if he did then I hope he feels as uncomfortable about it as I do). I am guessing that he was invited to comment as the news channels scrabbled for angles to cover, given that actual facts were emerging slowly and there are only so many times you can repeat scant information.

The news media was caught in a bind. An event of such impact means they feel they have to suspend all other reporting and focus on one story. Only, as these things unfold, there is always a lack of information to fill extended tracts of time.

The next morning, 16 or so hours after the event, Radio 5's phone in was "Do you think guns should be banned?" Inviting opinionated callers to argue about the merits of gun ownership whilst the people of West Cumbria woke up to fresh grief.

But the story doesn't end there. Once you've set up an OB unit and sent a couple of big-hitting anchors to the scene then you have to justify it by keeping it as your main story. Hence the presenters are actually standing in front of the taxi rank where someone was gunned down in cold blood not 24 hours ago. They point it out. Not with glee exactly, but with a tone that - perhaps unintentionally - borders on prurience.

And stuff happens. Like releasing names of victims because the people around the town have given them to you. No thought that there might be reasons the police have withheld names - how about that relative in New Zealand or on holiday in Ibiza who doesn't really want to switch on BBC World to find their brother or lover is dead, or someone needing dental records checking? Or patronising the town as some simple little backwater, and its people as unsophisticated yokels. Or filling the gaps in the facts by falling back on cliched speculations.

And asking people how they feel, then asking them again. How do you feel that this happened in front of you? What was it like to see someone shot in the face? How do you feel that this happened in your town? Did you ever think it would happen here? How did you feel when you found out how many were dead? How do you feel about gun ownership? Will you ever feel safe going out shopping again?

24 hour news has an endless habit of repeating everything several times over, then over again (like a monkey with a miniature cymbal, you might say). Someone tells you what will be asked on PMQs, then they show it and someone else cuts in over the top to restate what's being said. Then after it's all over someone else - or several people - spend more time retelling what you've just heard, explaining it, re-explaining it and then explaining their opinion of it. It's annoying but they do have hours and hours to fill. The interviewers will rephrase the same question three, maybe four times and receive the same answer. Then suddenly they declare that they're out of time and have to go to the weather. And all that is fine when it's asking a football manager about his potential transfer targets, or a politician about some policy to do with recycling.

But when it comes to brutal mass-murder and its victims and survivors it's just not the right thing to do. Okay, ask how someone feels, but then let them get on with their life.

This week there were two or three people - eye-witnesses - who appeared on every channel, every radio station and in every newspaper. Were they seduced by the thought of being on camera and being a bit-part actor in the scene? One or two of them might have been. But I am guessing that once they'd done one interview or given one account, a queue formed. Who knows if they even got paid somehow? Who'd blame them if they were?

And then come the 'forensic psychologists'. Some of them are clearly legit, some are chancers who like appearing on telly and doing that 'expert' thing. All spout the usual stuff that anyone can pick up from CSI or any number of crime novels. The fact is, nobody knows what caused this terrible thing. Nobody knows what ever causes these things because the perpetrators don't explain. They probably can't, which is why they do their talking through the barrels of guns.

I saw an interview with a Hungerford witness/survivor. The first thing he said was that as soon as he saw the news on Wednesday, he was a waiting for the phone to ring and to see the TV trucks roll into Hungerford to vox-pop the people. It was Friday. Less than two days after the Cumbria story first broke.

Did it all go so quick in the past. Did this machine kick into gear, overbomb the story, devour the people affected and then roll onto the next event, all before a single funeral has even been arranged?

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