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The Death of News aka "necro news"

Informed journalism is taking second place to salaciously reported crime and celebrity: what I call 'necro news'
Martin Bell
February 4, 2008 11:00 AM

General Sir Rupert Smith argues in his book The Utility Of Force that war as we have known it no longer exists. The same is true of war reporting and, I believe, of all journalism. They no longer exist as we have known them. I am making the case today in an obituary speech to the Royal Television Society. I would like to road-test its themes on the Cif readership.

This is not an attack on the journalists themselves, although it is on the editorial decision-makers, especially at the BBC (which I hold to a higher standard) - serving up a product which calls itself news but in many cases, like the lamentable Six O'Clock News, is no more than a reality TV show.

The death of war reporting is an inevitable consequence of the increasing dangers out there. The worst that could happen in my time was to be caught in the crossfire of someone else's war. Today's practitioners are targeted and singled out for kidnap and execution. The death of Terry Lloyd of ITN in Iraq was a chilling reminder to us all: today's war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan offer no foothold for independent and free-ranging journalism. Nor is it only the westerners who are at risk. The Arabic news channel al-Arabiya lost 11 of its staff, killed by both sides, in the first three years of the war in Iraq. Al-Jazeera was criminally targeted by the Americans, in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

So the journalists retreat into fortified compounds, emerging occasionally for 15-minute "news raids" into the real world. Hence the growing phenomenon of rooftop journalism, in which crisply dressed performers address their audiences in front of the two most famous palm trees in the world. They are in the area but not on the scene. It looks like news and sounds like news, but bears a much relation to news as fish paste does to caviar.

Foreign news is expensive and dangerous. So in many cases newspapers and TV networks have abandoned it, retreating into a comfort zone of celebrity stories, consumer news, sport, health-scares and crime. Especially crime. In the last 10 years or so, a particular category has been climbing up the news agenda to a dominant position. I call these stories "necro-news".

They are about the victimisation of girls and young women. The death or disappearance of anyone from a toddler to a princess is the signal for a media obsession with these stories to the virtual exclusion of all others. The coverage is mawkish, exploitative and highly speculative.

We saw this with the deaths of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman in Soham, with the Ipswich murders in December 2006 and most conspicuously with the abduction of Madeleine McCann in Portugal in May last year.

The BBC now accepts, I believe, that it was wrong to give the story the wall-to-wall prominence that it did, or to send its leading anchors to Portugal to front the coverage. But it still found space for a Madeleine story in its first 10 O'Clock News, going head-to-head with ITN's revamped News At Ten. Both programmes were awash with necro-news. The BBC owed much to John Simpson's report from Zimbabwe to show it still has some journalistic integrity (and his baseball cap was a more comely disguise than his burka).

If Sky News wishes to become the McCann channel, the BBC should let it do so. Likewise, if ITV News believes that the most important interview to be had in Pakistan is with one of Princess Diana's old flames, it should be left to its own devices. The present leadership of BBC news seems bent on betraying the traditions it inherited. My message to them is that it is not to late to repent.

I have recently written an introduction to a new edition of William Howard Russell's Dispatches from the Crimea. He was the father of our tribe and his reports have a "first-handedness" that we have lost. I believe that the readers of The Times in 1854 were better informed about the war in the Crimea than the readers of any newspaper, or the viewers of any TV network, about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan today.

Some of this was done to us. But most of it we have done to ourselves.


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