THE QUALITY OF LOCAL JOURNALISM: #2

Another Independent Assessment.

On Saturday the 29th Jan, I published an article written by an anonymous author – but one who clearly possesses a deep and clear understanding of Channel Island media.

Titled “The Quality of Local Journalism”, I commend the article to any reader who wants some true insight into just how atrocious “journalism” is in Jersey.

In a comment, a reader mentioned an article that had appeared in The Times some years earlier, written by a UK journalist who had the misfortune to join Channel Television. I’ve located the piece, and as I don’t have time to write anything myself at the moment – being consumed with the task of trying to prevent the Jersey oligarchy from jailing me for months for the crime of having been an opposition politician – I thought I’d post the original article by Patrick Muirhead.

It’s another funny – and depressingly accurate – account of just how truly dismal is the quality of “news” reporting in these islands.

If I ever have time, I must write some postings on the political economy of the mass-media in the Channel Islands. In the meantime – here is something lighter – and just as damning.

Stuart.

From The Times
January 19, 2005

Anchor’s away: how my TV news career sank

After leaving BBC radio to become anchorman on Britain’s smallest ITV station our correspondent found himself drowning in the murky waters of local celebrity

By Patrick Muirhead

LAST year I was really, seriously famous. Famous in the Channel Islands, that is. Until my brief sojourn in Jersey ended last month I was that most deservedly lampooned small-screen creation, the local TV anchorman. But my micro-fame as the Alan Partridge of St Helier was far from the pleasurable fest of freebies, village fête openings and knee-tremblers with nubile young television wannabes that I had imagined when I accepted the job.

I blush to admit that I grew up dreaming that I might one day soar to the firmament occupied by Mike Neville, Bob Warman and Fred Dinenage. ‘Who’, you ask? Deities in their own regions, they are the linchpins of local news around the British Isles: adored by lonely spinsters, revered as judges of flower shows, stalwarts of school governing bodies and magistrates’ benches up and down the land.

My ambition was not entirely to achieve fun-sized stardom. It was buttressed by an honest passion for local news, rooted in my happy journalistic beginnings on a weekly local paper 17 years before. Then, stories of prize-winning cucumbers and golden wedding accounts of a lifetime’s give and take had enthralled me. But the world had shrunk since. Although I risk earning myself a place in Pseuds’ Corner by saying so, the people of the Aceh peninsula had become the new neighbours. For some inexplicable reason I had failed to notice this encouraging sign of personal development.

Last summer I gave up my job on Radio 4 to front Channel Report, the long-running “flagship” of Channel Television, the islands’ ITV contractor. Flagship is a grandiose title; it was the station’s only regular daily production, if you exclude the filler of children’s birthday greetings presented by a cheery actor and a puppet called Oscar Puffin operated by a man kneeling on the floor with an arm shoved up the bird’s backside.

I have to admit it had sounded like fun: to be a big fish in a small pool, to live on a beautiful temperate island, to escape from the grime and crime of the metropolis. But I had not reckoned on my plan’s tragic flaw: I was taking myself along too.

Channel, with a staff of around 50, is by far the tiniest of the original ITV franchisees. It clings tenaciously to existence after 42 years serving the 150,000 residents of Jersey, Guernsey, Alderney and Sark, resolutely independent despite the amalgamation of most of its ITV bedfellows. “Only someone with a very tidy mind would bother to buy Channel,” my predecessor told me witheringly, as he tugged the rip cord and jumped, quelling some of my misgivings but igniting others.

I prepared minutely for my new role, splurging a fortune on Savile Row tailoring, attending the dentist, the barber and beautician. I memorised quirky Jersey-French pronunciations, plodded through the Dame of Sark’s autobiography and other instructive histories, and acquainted myself with the perilous local sensitivities of terms such as “money launderer”, “tax dodger” and “Nazi collaborator”. I even downloaded the Bergerac theme tune to my mobile phone as a sort of devotional act.

Channel Report was re-launched last September with zippy new opening titles, a vast, redesigned studio set, fresh-faced presentation duo on its plump blue banquette, a beefed-up reporting team and a commitment to a sharper, contemporary agenda. With no trace of self-consciousness we did a deadpan delivery of our headline story on re-launch night: “Shopping survey: what’s in your basket?” Hard-hitting stuff.

An apparatchik from Ofcom turned up for a snoop, asked for me by name when told of my appointment and seemed delighted to shake my hand. “I just wanted to say hello because I miss you on Radio 4. Such a loss,” she said. I gulped back tears as it began to dawn on me that I had almost certainly just steered myself into professional oblivion.

Undeterred, I quickly acquired that cheeky wink that is the local TV man’s stock in trade, learned to loll nonchalantly on the sofa, eyes and teeth twinkling at the antics of kittens and puppies, brow furrowed in pity for the victims of chip-pan blazes and car shunts. I cast adoring glances at my pregnant co-presenter at regular intervals, cultivated that familiarity with her that, we were told, viewers love. We even quipped on air about her swelling bump after viewers queried the gal’s carb intake.

But from the outset I was spectacularly unsuited to the work: my eyesight was so poor that I had to squint to read the teleprompt, thus appearing to resemble a leering Wilfred Brambell rather than the silvery host of the small screen; I was so deaf that I constantly missed vital cues whispered into my earpiece, such as when to speak, when to shut up and where to look. I could have been caught staring into space 100 times had not my co-host covertly jabbed my thigh behind our little smoked-glass coffee table. These failings flustered me, were embarrassing and made me bratty. Quickly I became the brittle egomaniac of TV fable, so uneasy was I about fouling up.

I was expected to apply my own make-up. At first my efforts with the brush would barely have flattered a paraplegic foot-painter but I did eventually acquire a few rudimentary skills. I settled for looking like a cadaver of some six months deceased.

It takes considerable talent to be nice on television. The camera can lie if you are clever enough to cheat it. But you must first convince yourself of your sincerity. Beneath the bonhomie and impasto foundation cream that could have in-filled even the lunar facial declivities of Ukraine’s new president, I was squirming at my own performance, a steaming pile of phoney folksiness. I was re-hashing something from the era of Val Doonican, Lucky Ladders and Stars on Sunday. And doing it badly.

Perhaps my co-presenter and I fooled somebody in Herm, but it was obvious to many that we were hardly the best of friends. She found my style abrasive: “Your forthrightness just puts people’s backs up,” she said, after complaints about my foot-in-the-door journalistic methods. Conversely, I found her approach fawning and sometimes wooden. Occasionally, when viewers saw us silhouetted on our sofa at the start of the show, apparently chatting to each other with amicable animation, we were in reality trading verbal blows through grimaces hoping that lip-readers were preoccupied elsewhere.

But my co-host embodied precisely the qualities that make a successful ITV regional anchor. Viewers cared vastly more for news of her pregnancy than for insights into Jersey’s £100 million budget deficit, its alarming heroin addiction problem or its unassimilated and resentful immigrant population. We were the viewers’ surrogate grandson and granddaughter. They may even be knitting for the baby as I write.

Once, President Paul Kagame of Rwanda visited Jersey, ostensibly to collect four ribbon-bedecked Jersey cattle to bolster his nation’s dairy herd. I wished to ask him why he had really come to an island awash with financiers while massing his army on the border with his neighbour Congo ready for war with Hutus who threatened to invade. I could not have cared less about cutesy cows; I ached to be Jeremy Paxman. But my job was to gush and whoop convincingly about bovines in bunting. That sort of journalism demands no less panache that Paxo’s; it’s just not in my skills set.

Micro-fame entailed being recognised by excited viewers but usually at embarrassing and inopportune moments. Once, on an excursion together to St Helier’s vegetable market early in our partnership, my co-host and I were wrestling with a spilled punnet of strawberries and half a dozen unruly satsumas when a passer-by observed that we resembled “that pair on the telly”. “Similar,” I assured the lady as I pursued wayward soft fruit on all fours. “Similar, but not the same.”

On an evening off, I was pushing a trolley full of loo rolls around a supermarket when an elderly viewer gesticulated at her wristwatch. “You’d better get a wriggle on, dear. It’s nearly six. You’re on in ten minutes!” Pausing to inspect my purchases, she exclaimed: “Andrex. I always knew you was quality.”

Worse than that was the morning when I crashed my scooter on the way to work. As I stumbled free of the wreckage of the Vespa, several people sidled up to gawp or commiserate. “It’s him off the news,” said one. “Will this be tonight’s top story, mate?” quipped another, displaying a disarmingly astute grasp of some news bulletins.

Then I completely misjudged local humour when we featured Guernsey’s destitute dogs. Summarising the viewers’ interest in each sorry-looking stray, I joked that the plight of a mutt called Shadow had elicited only a single inquiry, that from a Korean restaurant. “You will have to apologise,” implored the producer in my ear. Reluctantly I withdrew my mischievous insinuation but decided instead to go for the double: I said it had in fact been a Chinese restaurant. The collective recoil in my ear would have befitted an unguarded fellatio joke at an Edwardian ladies’ tea party. Afterwards, one complaint flooded in.

The perks I accrued were very modest. They included one promotional bottle of Miss You Nights, Cliff Richard’s fragrance for the more mature lady, a puff of which called to mind weedkiller more readily than wandering stars; and a free VIP pass to St Helier’s one and only gay nightclub with its strict “no snogging” rule — a recklessly libertarian institution by Jersey standards when one considers that dancing on Sunday was not permitted on the island until a few short years ago. At the Cosmopolitan they treated me as the island’s biggest star. But local TV anchors are stars only in the eyes of their mothers and a few grannies in supermarkets. Even I knew that.

After just two months on Channel Report I tendered my resignation, the notice period being somewhat longer than my term of service. A record, possibly, but at a price: having suffered from psoriasis since my teens, I was by now covered almost from head to toe in stress-induced weals and hopelessly unable to sleep, and my moods had become less sure than a high-sided vehicle crossing the Severn Bridge in a hurricane. “You’re showing signs of anxiety,” my doctor said with elegant understatement.

Regional television is a snakes and ladders affair: its barely literate but busty secretaries shoot to stardom while those grey-haired game show hosts of yesteryear settle in for their eternal rest. To survive for decades, as some venerable local anchormen have done, the beloved purveyors of bland, banal and often downright boring fare, is a remarkable feat indeed. For viewers they supply constancy and comfort; for the TV companies, after an anchorman’s first ten or so years on screen he is like baked-on grime: impossible to shift.

But ITV regional news is in terminal decline. Commitment to local programming is diminishing year by year as the regulator Ofcom relaxes its expectations to reflect today’s more commercially marginal multi-channel age. Around the UK, local documentary departments are closing, jobs are disappearing and regional news will soon all but vanish. One must wonder how much longer those twinkling stars have left in local TV heaven.

By Patrick Muirhead

First published in The Times, 19th January, 2005.

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