News

Martyn Lewis and the News – why the Cow and Gate Kid was right

Martyn Lewis. No, not the self-effacing financial evangelist. MartYn Lewis. Note the Y. Readers of a certain vintage will remember him as the baby-faced front man of almost every major news slot for both ITN and the BBC although, sensibly, he eschewed the breakfast couch.

Baby-faced he was though. An unfortunate confession that he had once been the Cow and Gate kid doing little to enhance his newscaster authority, nor the publication of a thrilling work called Cats in the News.

The Round-Up mentions these things rather unfairly, because it remembers him as a thoughtful and friendly man who pondered rather more than most the impact he had on his viewers. His measured announcement of the car crash that killed Princess Diana was a master class in the sort of calm dignity that once characterised the BBC. He was, in fact, the consummate professional.

We summon him from the past, however, because among journos everywhere he is best remembered for having had the temerity to suggest that they should report ‘more good news’. This caused much sniggering at the time and public hostilities between BBC colleagues including the famously chirpy Jeremy Paxman.

It was, however, fellow ITN-turned-BBC floor-crosser Peter Sissons who dealt his reputation the mortal and telling blow, by pointing out something to the effect ‘that increased production at Vauxhall is not good news at Ford’.

Lewis left the BBC in 1997 to be replaced by lip-curling Welsh Elvis impersonator Shaking Stevens. Sorry, Huw Edwards. Uh-huh, he who has not left the building since.

Lewis’s theme though is back, a piece in The Times by columnist Libby Purves pleading for a ‘balancing of the narrative’.

Purves’s contention is that various academic studies conclude that human history is largely an upward curve in which we continue, in broad terms, to live longer, wealthier, healthier lives, each year a little shorter on hunger, violence, war and ‘orrid endemic diseases.

Life in the past may have been as a child’s shirt, short and shitty, but in the view of Purves’ inner rational optimist, nowadays ‘You’ve never had it so good’.

That optimism isn’t blind, however. She’s quick to point out the horrors of Syria among the general nastiness that continues to afflict the world and – if you believe the odd rash of recent Telegraph stories on an increase in exorcisms – the battle between good and evil for its control.

Purves goes on to extoll her faith in humanity. But the Round-Up thinks she missed an opportunity to develop Lewis’ argument of old.

We’ll have a go..

George Bernard Shaw once suggested that the essential flaw in the journalistic mind was that it ‘can’t tell the difference between a bicycle crash and the end of civilisation.’ It has no interest in so doing of course and its formulaic approach to the way the world turns dictates that ‘End of the world tomorrow. Again!’ traps it between its own need to haul in viewers and readers and the myriad interest groups whose very existence depends on apocalypse and their role in its prevention.

Meanwhile, people everywhere report a greater sense of well-being when they surrender the newspaper or industrial action strikes Today from our airwaves.

Journalism, of course, is not an extension of the self-help manuals. Its job is in no small part to make someone, somewhere feel uncomfortable, while PR – or at least its campaigning wing – must take its share of responsibility for pump-priming news outlets everywhere with things we must worry about.

But nor is the media duly sceptical near experts. The Round-Up vividly remembers one Dr Richard Lacey, a microbiologist from Leeds, who, in 1996, assisted The Observer in creating a post-BSE vision of Britain in, appropriately, 2016. This, among other things, predicted stretched national euthanasia clinics seeing off 500 people a week ‘to dignified deaths’. The NHS would be broken by treating 2 million vCJD victims, the country would be quarantined, blocked in ‘by five miles of French concrete’ and ‘the entire fabric of the nation would be disintegrating.’  28 Days Later extrapolated across 20 years.

Some might argue that the legions of economic doomsayers who clustered around Brexit were all too willingly believed in much the same vein. Time will tell.

All of which overlooks the obvious fact that to view the world through the news is to view it through a necessarily distorted prism. It deals in the extraordinary by definition. ‘Dog bites man is not a story. Man bites dog is.’ As the hoary old newshound aphorism goes.

Journalistic truth is also often elliptical. When your timescale is an evening deadline, not all the canvas gets painted, nor may what seems true today still hold good by tomorrow. And anyone who has fielded a call from a reporter with an appetite for destruction will be well aware that part of your job is to throw the facts in front of a good story and hope they survive the impact.

But perhaps with hindsight and the wisdom it brings, Lewis and Purves have a point. Otter saved should weigh in the balance with elephant threatened. Man does good should feature in the equation with the evil that men do. The duck should skateboard through our lives now and then.

To suggest otherwise is to perpetrate a bleakness and despair that is not reflective of all of our world, all of the time, whatever saturation coverage and the ever-on smart phone alert might suggest. In all its forms, perhaps the media world’s reputation – its very credibility – hinges on remembering it.

 

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