Cheapened by gim­mickry and the cult of per­son­al­ity


Some­thing’s not right here. I’m watch­ing a 1 News item about Prince Charles be­ing im­pli­cated in an in­ter­na­tional tax dodge and the re­porter is TVNZ’s own Chris Chang.

The story orig­i­nated in Bri­tain, but Chang would have recorded his voiceover in TVNZ’s Auck­land news­room. It will have re­placed a voice track sup­plied with the orig­i­nal item by the BBC. But why?

Are we re­ally ex­pected to be­lieve that a jour­nal­ist sit­ting in New Zealand, with no spe­cial­ist knowl­edge of Prince Charles or his dodgy in­vest­ments, is in a bet­ter po­si­tion to tell us what’s go­ing on than some­one close to the ac­tion?

Of course he isn’t. But this de­cep­tion is rou­tinely prac­tised by our state-owned tele­vi­sion net­work. Al­most nightly, TVNZ takes over­seas news items and gets its own jour­nal­ists to record a voiceover.

It’s dis­hon­est, be­cause it pre­tends TVNZ’s own staff have done the hard yards when in fact they’re piggy-back­ing on the work of cor­re­spon­dents over­seas.

You could ar­gue that it’s harm­less, but it’s dis­hon­est all the same – and en­tirely un­nec­es­sary. So why does TVNZ do it?

I sus­pect that it’s all about pro­mot­ing TVNZ’s own jour­nal­ists as ‘‘names’’ – celebri­ties, you might say – whom we are en­cour­aged to re­gard as our per­sonal friends.

It’s just one ex­am­ple of the many ways in which TV news bul­letins have been cheapened by gim­mickry and the cult of per­son­al­ity.

Even in the dig­i­tal age, when con­sumers of news have a ver­i­ta­ble smor­gas­bord of op­tions, the 6 o’clock news re­mains cru­cial in lock­ing view­ers in for the evening.

1 News re­mains the most­watched free-to- air pro­gramme and TVNZ con­stantly tweaks it to en­sure it re­tains our loy­alty.

The de­base­ment process was set in train decades ago when some­one de­cided it would be a good idea to have two peo­ple, rather than one, read­ing the news.

The tan­dem male-fe­male news­read­ing team is now such an en­trenched prac­tice that we no longer think of it as pe­cu­liar. But read­ing the news re­quires only one per­son, as ra­dio and most re­spected over­seas TV net­works demon­strate. Two is pure gim­mickry.

Now, let’s move from the merely ir­ri­tat­ing to the in­gra­ti­at­ing.

TVNZ news­read­ers and re­porters have clearly been in­structed to en­cour­age us to think of them not as de­tached, com­pe­tent pro­fes­sion­als do­ing a se­ri­ous, im­por­tant job, but as our chums.

It’s the Friendly News with Si­mon and Wendy, with Dan the Smil­ing Weather­man pro­vid­ing the warm-up act.

This sense of easy fa­mil­iar­ity is re­in­forced by the way the news­read­ers ad­dress re­porters when they ap­pear live. Jes­sica Mutch is ‘‘Jess’’, sports host An­drew Sav­ille is ‘‘Sav’’, and so on. They’re our pals.

We see it too when a re­porter such as Paul Hobbs, one of TVNZ’s most favoured jour­nal­ists, ap­pears on screen. He of­ten gives the im­pres­sion that he’s less con­cerned with pro­vid­ing an au­thor­i­ta­tive re­port than with es­tab­lish­ing a smi­ley em­pa­thy with view­ers.

This ap­proach can be traced back 20 years or so, to when an Amer­i­can con­sul­tant was brought in to re­train TVNZ’s jour­nal­ists and news­read­ers.

His mes­sage, which TVNZ man­age­ment heartily en­dorsed, was that view­ers had to be­come more emo­tion­ally en­gaged with the news. They had to feel it on a more per­sonal level.

Brian Ed­wards mem­o­rably called it the coochie-coo news. Some jour­nal­ists couldn’t bear it and quit rather than un­dergo what they called ‘‘potty train­ing’’.

What else bugs me about 1 News? Well, there’s the nag­ging sus­pi­cion that some re­porters are hired for their looks rather than their abil­ity.

Then there are the ridicu­lously brief sound bites from in­ter­vie­wees – some­times just three or four words. Is TVNZ wor­ried that our at­ten­tion span can’t cope with a com­plete sen­tence, or is it a way of mak­ing the news seem fast-paced and dy­namic?

There’s also the ridicu­lous em­pha­sis on re­port­ing ‘‘live’’ from the scene of a story, even when the event be­ing re­ported took place hours ear­lier and the ‘‘live’’ re­port adds noth­ing.

It’s made worse when the re­porter is not up to the chal­lenge of speak­ing live to the cam­era, as is of­ten the case.

And don’t get me started about in­cor­rect cap­tions – in­deed, of­ten no cap­tions at all, so that you’re left to guess the iden­tity of the per­son on screen.

Stan­dard prac­tice, on TVNZ at least, is not to iden­tify the speaker the first time he or she ap­pears. You have to wait for a sec­ond ap­pear­ance be­fore you learn who it is.

Again, why? Per­haps TVNZ thinks we’ll be so cu­ri­ous to learn who it is that we won’t stray to a ri­val chan­nel. Who knows how the TVNZ cor­po­rate mind works?

My point is this: News is se­ri­ous stuff. It de­serves to be treated with re­spect, not gussied up with floss and tat bet­ter suited to a trav­el­ling cir­cus.

In the 1920s, the BBC fa­mously re­quired its ra­dio news­read­ers to wear a din­ner jacket, even though no-one saw them. Over the top? Yes – but at least it showed that the BBC saw the read­ing of the day’s news as an oc­ca­sion of some grav­i­tas.

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