Comment: Bryan Appleyard
British television news is dull and lacks substance. In America, anchors have authority and zest. Why won't the BBC join the winning side?
Two important things happened recently. Katie Couric was appointed by CBS as the first solo female anchor of a network evening news show in the USA. In Britain, meanwhile, I stopped watching BBC Television news. Not only are these two things important, they are linked.
Couric, who will earn in the region of ÂŁ8.5m per year, is an astounding and, to the British, largely incomprehensible confection. For years, along with Matt Lauer, she presented NBCâ€™s breakfast show, Today, for which she earned a mere ÂŁ5.7m per year. She is now 49 and has the face of a pixie, excellent legs â€” she is said to like low camera angles, to exploit this asset â€” and a weird and not entirely healthy obsession with colon cancer, a condition that she brings up at every possible opportunity. In fairness to her, this disease killed her husband in 1998. But still.
So far, so predictable: tough chick with the face of Americaâ€™s sweetheart and a plausible, caring manner makes a lot of money in television. Welcome to the USA. But what people tend not to notice â€” though plainly NBC and CBS have â€” is that Couric is not some breakfast-show bimbette, but the best television journalist in the world.
Lying in bed in a New York hotel, jet-lagged, watching Today is â€” for me and, I discovered, for our own anchor Kirsty Young â€” one of the joys of visiting America. Couric switches from the lightest, fluffiest nonsense to the heaviest, most ominous issue without so much as a pause. In seconds, she can slice and dice any story; and, in an instant, the pixie face can harden into cold anger. I saw her interview some dumb reality-show winner who had just got a book deal.
â€śIsnâ€™t that,â€ť said Couric, the smile frozen into contempt, â€śkinda stupid?â€ť
Go, Katie. The one time I saw her fail was when she went to interview the famously uninterviewable Philip Roth. But even her failure made great, though distinctly uncomfortable, television. I found myself angry with that great writer on her behalf.
The job she has been given, that of evening news anchor, is among the most important and venerated in the whole of the US media. Her male equivalents include Walter Cronkite, Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings and Dan Rather, who preceded her at CBS. These are men whose handsome, aged faces and austere manner have consoled and informed America through the cold war and beyond. Though she is the first woman in that position, she is certainly not the first woman to rise high in serious US television news â€” Connie Chung, Barbara Walters and Diane Sawyer were years ahead of her. But the point is that â€śanchorâ€ť means what it says. She will hold everything together; she will keep us steady amid the tumult of global events.
Americans, of course, take journalism much more seriously than we do, especially when it is on television. George Clooneyâ€™s recent film Good Night, and Good Luck, about CBSâ€™s resistance to Senator Joe McCarthy, portrayed journalists as the most important players in the political game. The faces and voices that bring the world into American homes are â€” but for the odd scandal â€” admired, trusted and, above all, authoritative. People will believe their anchor before they will believe their president.
Over here, neither we print journalists nor our television colleagues have any such status. And, significantly, we donâ€™t really have news anchors, except for Jon Snow, but (see below) there is a problem there. We have people like Young, Huw Edwards and George Alagiah, but their role is much more neutral than that of their American counterparts. Indeed, most of the time we barely notice who they are, unless, like Anna Ford, they are uncommonly beautiful; like Reginald Bosanquet, uncommonly drunk; or, like Angela Rippon, uncommonly prone to showing their legs on The Morecambe and Wise Show. Furthermore, none of our television news is anything like as good as the best American shows. Sky and ITV have adopted mad, Starship Enterprise sets, within which presenters wander as if lost, and Channel 4 News has so many issues of objectivity that I find it just too annoying. But they are commercial operations: if they are bad, that is their business. The BBC, however, is our business, and its primary news shows are now unwatchable.
Of course, they have long been unwatchable if you object to political bias. The BBC wonâ€™t listen, but Iâ€™m afraid that the case is unarguable. The corporation is suffused with soft left and hard anti-American prejudices that seep into almost all the news coverage. By the time one gets to Newsnight and sees Gavin Esler treating any old hoodlum or crook with extravagant respect before turning to sneer at some decent American congressman, one can find oneself indulging in that awful, crazed habit of shouting at the TV. Looking down at the vast BBC newsroom, I once made this point to an executive, who just looked blankly back as if I had unaccountably lapsed into Hungarian. To get her attention, I asked her to tell me which newspapers she could see on the desks. Amid that sea of reporters, only one title was visible â€” the eccentrically left-leaning Independent.
Justin Webb, a BBC Washington correspondent, provided even more conclusive evidence: America is often portrayed as an ignorant, unsophisticated sort of place, â€śfull of Bible-bashers and ruled to a dangerous extent by trashy television, superstition and religious bigotry, a place lacking in respect for evidence-based knowledge. I know that is how it is portrayed because I have done my bit to paint that picture...â€ť
In fact, bias is not the real problem. It is probably impossible to produce truly unbiased news; and, anyway, it is relatively easy for even the averagely well informed to aim to the right when watching BBC bulletins. Nor is talent the problem. With one or two exceptions, the BBCâ€™s television journalists are a smart and gifted bunch and, naturally, I yield to nobody in my admiration of Jeremy Paxman, The Great Paxo. No, the real problem is stylistic. The main shows have become dead and uninformative.
The deadness is extraordinary. I first noticed it on the breakfast show. For hours, nothing happens, over and over again. Various presenters struggle to ape the American model or to get some â€śchemistryâ€ť going, the odd weather girl bounces about, and capriciously dull features â€” the training of police dogs was one recent, brilliantly stillborn example â€” are stretched out from day to day. Dull and serious is just about bearable, but dull and trivial â€” why?
Some creeping, necrotic effect has spread to the other primary bulletins. All the main presenters seem to be suffering from a form of narcolepsy, and most of the writing is as flat as a pancake. Seesawing between boredom and irritation, I finally abandoned BBC News, with the exception of the excellent BBC4 bulletin. I should also say that the corporationâ€™s superb website is probably the best news source in the world, and radio has yet to fall down dead. The resources and talent are there.
So, what has happened to mainstream TV news? The answer, I think, is: first, the common style imposed on all the bulletins in 1999 has placed them in an unfortunate stylistic straitjacket; second, the Andrew Gilligan affair destroyed the BBCâ€™s confidence (unfairly â€” Gilligan was right); and third, a patronising tabloid style, though without the tabloid excitement, has infected the whole operation, on the advice, I would guess, of the always unnecessary and invariably annoying marketing department.
The BBC has, I think, two options. The scorched-earth policy would be to abandon news entirely. There is too much television news, and, these days, nobody loves the BBC for its news. However, we certainly do love it for Planet Earth, Bleak House and so on. Furthermore, news is incredibly expensive, and cutting the licence fee would be a smart move. The problem with this, clearly, would be that the BBC would abandon its historic identity as the organisation through which â€śnation speaks peace unto nationâ€ť.
The second alternative, the take-the-bull-by-the-horns policy, is to make the Great Paxo a true anchor of the 6pm or 10pm bulletins, and just sit back and watch. We have never really tried the American anchor model. Certainly, we have had a few news panjandrums, such as Alastair Burnet or Trevor McDonald, and the BBC did once specialise in rather cosy, trustworthy figures like Kenneth Kendall and Richard Baker. But there has never been a central figure who truly acts as the face of the news, whose attitudes and manner become a welcome and consoling part of national life. Paxoâ€™s the man.
Of course, they wonâ€™t do it because theyâ€™d be afraid of what might happen and, more importantly, because they have an innate distrust of authority figures. The reflex egalitarian, anti-elitist streak in the BBC means that they prefer bland, jolly, tabloidy types to anybody with any weight or authority. It is a truism that Kenneth Clarkeâ€™s Civilisation could not be made today. But it remains shocking and sad.
Back in the States, I would guess that, with Couric on board, CBS is about to become the best TV news operation in the world. The BBC should watch and learn.