And now, time for some better news...

02 Aug 2017  |  Raymond Snoddy 
And now, time for some better news...

The media bone yard is littered with the corpses of well-meaning attempts to launch more high-minded journalism, writes Raymond Snoddy - maybe it's time for something to finally stick around...

Maybe comedian Jerry Seinfeld got it right when he joked: “It’s amazing that the amount of news that happens in the world every day always just exactly fits the newspapers.”

And you can expand the wisdom to include 24-hour television news channels although the Seinfeld witticism doesn’t extend all that well to the near infinite reaches of the Internet.

Behind the wisecrack lies deeper layers of meaning and questions that range from what is news, and what effect does it have on society, to worries about the impact of endless negative, pessimistic information of which there is no shortage on the human psyche.

It is an old debate, and for some the answer is media that accentuates the positive and indeed produces only good news.

The bad news is that even when people say they would like to see more good news they are more willing to pay for the tear-stained stuff.

Years ago there was a good news newspaper in Detroit but it didn’t last for very long, and that was before newspaper advertising started to melt.

Maybe the Internet can help with good news and certainly the goodnewsnetwork has managed to survive.

“The #1 source for good news! For 20 years, our positive news from around the world has uplifted and inspired millions to become more optimistic.”

Recent stories include the bitter-sweet tale of the jilted bride in Carmel, Indiana, who invited the city’s homeless to enjoy her non-refundable $30,000 wedding reception, or “the tenacious rabbits riding on the back of sheep to escape floodwater,” plus the more serious view that the goals of the Paris accords on climate change could be met sooner than expected.

The move to back more good news on television has long been supported by former newsreader Sir Martyn Lewis.

And in a different take on the issue, Financial Times contributor John Lloyd argued in “What the media are doing to our politics” that the cynicism of political journalists was making government almost impossible. Instead he wanted to see the development of a new more responsible civic journalism.

In the age of fake news and alternative facts the latest to interrogate the whole concept of news with the idea that even true and accurate breaking news may be bad for you, is Tim Montgomerie, who founded the ConservativeHome website.

Now Montgomerie has funds to set up, launch and develop - a new media venture that will focus on “the important things rather than the latest things.”

Montgomerie has four years of funding, some of it from Paul Marshall, the hedge fund investor who is interested in centrist political projects, and is offering generous sums to give journalists the time to explore far beyond the latest headlines.

“Together they [the UnHerd journalists] will challenge out-of–date, incorrect and even dangerous thinking on economics, politics, technology, religion and the media,” is what comes close to being a decent mission statement.

There will be detailed interviews and more structured interview-based programmes “much like BBC Radio 4’s Analysis programme".

In an early shot London-based American journalist and author Lionel Shriver talks about her news-aholicism.

What’s not to like about philanthropists funding serious longer-term journalism at a time when too many of the surviving paid-for journalists are virtually chained to their computers churning out instantaneous online stories?

There has clearly been a problem with 24-hour news channels for years. The endless repetition, the equally endless speculation in advance of relatively mundane news events would be enough to drive anyone mad if they were foolish enough to watch it at the time.

In fact, on ordinary, low news days - which probably, despite everything, make up the majority of days, the Seinfeld theorem scarcely works: there isn’t really enough significant news to fill 24 hours of television. There is an awful lot of nonsense and filler material and it would be a small step forward if they stop heralding trivial items that happened hours ago as “Breaking News”.

Often even the main television news bulletins can look very thin on days when the only thing that moves involves minor manoeuvres in the Westminster village.

The media of the minute and the hour have obvious difficulty covering the most profound but relatively slow-moving phenomena such as climate change.

It would, however, be a parody to suggest that overall - despite increasing pressure on finances - the media in the UK and the West in general totally ignore longer-term issues or what is important and true. After all, in the UK there is Newsnight, Channel 4 News and even a growth in competing political shows on Sunday mornings. In the US the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal are doing a fine job on the presidency of Donald. J.Trump.

It would be unfair to say that they always stick to the now and never do courageous journalism on the neglected and dangerous to cover issues such as the state of Yemen.

The media bone yard is littered with the corpses of well-meaning attempts to launch more serious, high-minded journalism whether in magazine or television form which failed to get either adequate advertising revenues or audiences.

UnHerd can only be judged by its output over the next year or so but despite its attempts to differentiate itself from the existing media you can already see some of the tricky issues: what exactly to cover that is important and uncovered at the moment.

There will be a structured interview programme rather like Radio 4’s Analysis. Quite. By definition Analysis exists already and comes up with serious stories on a weekly basis though certainly competition is good.

Perhaps one place that would repay a lot more investigation is the biggest domestic story of the decade - apart from real breaking news such as fires and terrorist attacks - and that is the increasingly pained withdrawal from the European Union.

A serious economic investigation might have the effect of persuading some of the 52 per cent to change their mind.

Montgomerie might also look at the efforts of International Trade Secretary Liam Fox and Commons Leader Andrea Leadsom to put pressure on the BBC to carry more good news stories about Brexit when many observers believe the outlook for Brexit could scarcely look more bleak.

There are, however, other significant stories to consider. It’s too late for the inhabitants of Grenfell to investigate fire regulations in tower blocks but investigations of safety issues in every aspect of modern life before disaster actually happen might be useful.

And how about effects on the lives of local populations of sustained local authority cuts over recent years - or how political parties all signed up for the HS2 white elephant.

Maybe the good news is there is plenty of work for UnHerd to do after all.


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