Turn on, tune in, drop off

Round-the-clock reporting has not made Britain any better-informed

<strong>BBC News 24</strong>

Who watches 24-hour news? I only watch it when I’m lonely: when I arrive in a hotel room late at night on a work trip. You switch it on for company and let the information, however grave, wash over you until you fall asleep. This is the thing about 24-hour news: it doesn’t go in. Because it never lets up, small stories become big – as stretched as old, grey chewing gum – big stories become preposterously enormous, and the overall effect is simply numbing. On Sky News, this is especially the case when Kay Burley is in charge. Burley, a Joan Jett lookalike who “anchors” afternoons, is blessed with a voice so immensely dreary and bored-sounding that she might as well be a hairdresser. “A gunman killed 15 people in Germany today,” she tells you, listlessly. From her tone, she might as well be asking where you will be going on your summer holiday.

Not that I would blame her if she is bored. What a job. When my new temporary boss asked me to watch 24-hour news for a whole day, I was extremely eager to please. I wasn’t going to be the one to get bawled out! Then I found that it is only possible to stick it for 40 minutes at a time, max. It’s not only the repetition, though that is maddening enough. The first time you are patronised by a reporter explaining the concept of embryo research, you tend not to notice, because even Newsnight treats us all like morons now; but the third time, you feel aggrieved, like a sixth-former who’s been made to rejoin fifth-form maths.

No, it’s the amateurishness and the navel gazing that really get to you. The amateurishness stems mostly from the reporters having all that time to fill. And so, between items, they chat, as if they were at a coffee morning. Jeez. It’s embarrassing. “Quantitative easing!” said some BBC news reporter, the other afternoon. And then: “Just trips off the tongue there, doesn’t it?” Cue forced wry laughter from Jon Sopel (yet another sleepy-head anchor; do give him a Red Bull, someone).

The navel gazing has the same root cause, but it is motored by a queasy extra: a new pomposity and self-obsession (it was this pomposity and self-obsession that led to Robert Peston’s recent reports from China being trailed as “Peston in China”, as though he were the American president or something). So, reporters interview one another, as if they were fascinating superstars. This can go on for hours, and even when it finally ends, they just switch instead to some enthusiastic plugging of their own amazing talents: cue Huw Edwards in a flak jacket and Matt Frei in a crisp, white shirt, as if he were doing an ad for Daz Automatic.

Of the two British news channels, I marginally prefer BBC. Sky is just bizarre. The size of Adam Boulton’s head! The weird, spectral silences that fall over the studio for seconds at a time, as though no one can think of anything at all to say. Even on QVC, they can always think of something to say. And I despise the way that all stories at Sky relating to financial disaster now carry a logo in the style of a crate stamp that says: “The Recession”. Classy!

Still, Sky is the home of Jeff Randall Live (weekday evenings). I still have no idea why the BBC let Randall, its former business editor, go. I know he is a bit clunky. I know he has views. But at least he sounds human and vaguely cogent. More crucially, in the context of 24-hour news, his voice is loud – there’s no sleeping through Jeff. So, I ask again: who watches this stuff? A few spin doctors? Scratch that – there’s the new boss to consider.

Actually, an ominous development at my bank, Lloyds, which now broadcasts Sky in my local branch, leads me to believe that the answer is: no one. The queues there are very long, and the news being broadcast is often, just lately, about the parlous state of the institution in which we are all waiting. We should all be gripped. But does anyone ever look up? They do not.

Pick of the week

Starts 22 March, 9pm, ITV1
Why? Or, possibly, why-aye. Morse’s Geordie sidekick returns with his own series.

Heston’s Roman Feast
24 March, 9pm, Channel 4
Decadence – for those who regard pigs’ nipples as decadent.

The Apprentice
Starts 25 March, 9pm, BBC1
Suralan returns with more loony “businessmen”.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Campbell guest edit