If we’re going to watch the news, let’s make it pretty

Channel 5’s head of news prefers ‘character’ to beauty in his newsreaders – but if we really favoured rigour over vigour, we wouldn’t be watching TV news, says Iain Murray

Channel 5, which once boasted that its bill of fare comprised three F’s – films, football, and, (ahem) fornication – is set to add a fourth: fossils. Chris Shaw, the station’s head of news, has let it be known that he is unsettled by television’s obsession with youthful presenters. He would like to see more “lived-in” faces mouthing the news. In pursuit of this goal, he is rumoured to have approached the BBC’s battle-hardened veteran Kate Adie. Others of a similar vintage whom he is known to admire include Brian Hanrahan, Charles Wheeler, Richard Lindley and Sue MacGregor.

This seems strange, coming from a man once so desperate for a new approach to newsreading that he encouraged winsome, blonde, blue-eyed Kirsty Young to follow the autocue while languidly resting a buttock on her desk. This flew in the face of crusted convention, which held that desks were for sitting behind, not sitting upon. Those of us who longed to see the process evolve – first, perhaps, with Kirsty standing on a chair and then maybe peeping out from behind a hatstand – were disappointed. All that happened was that the desk was replaced with a kind of high, curved bench, against which Miss Young leans both buttocks, giving the impression that she is waiting for a 33 bus and fitting in a bit of newsreading as a means of killing time.

So what prompted Mr Shaw to turn away from the top-totty-modelling-office-furniture school of newsreading to something more retrograde, not to say antediluvian? Curious to relate, it was a kind of Pauline conversion on the road to Malawi, in the company of former BBC correspondent and independent MP Martin Bell. Watching him at work, Shaw came to form a high regard for the wisdom of years and the skill born of experience. Like Orsino discovering music to be the food of love, Shaw, discovering crabbed age to be the fount of authority, wants excess of it. Hence the drive to scour medialand in search of those thought to be extinct. Let no cobwebbed corner of a newsroom be left unexplored, lest it conceal a mildewed former newsreader ripe for resuscitation.

“Beauty,” explains Shaw in lyrical mood, “is partly due to character rather than experience. Some of the older reporters have a lot more character than some of the younger, more unformed faces on our screens.” And there was me thinking the faces were unformed because of poor reception of Channel 5 in the Hertfordshire area.

Take a glance at the top of this column, dear reader, and it will come as no surprise that I am at one with Shaw in his appreciation of the mature mien. My face, too, has a lived-in look, and if I can find who’s been living in it I’d like him evicted. All the same, I cannot help but feel that Shaw is spitting into the wind. The people living in television’s glasshouse are alone in believing that the medium’s news coverage is of any significance. No one seriously, or even semi-seriously, interested in what is going on the world looks to television. By the very nature of the medium, its coverage is hasty, superficial, and slight. When Kirsty Young concludes her 5.30 coverage with: “Now you know everything that’s in the news”, or words to that effect, it’s the cue for a bailiff to walk in and hand her a summons citing the Trade Descriptions Act.

More often than not, the evening TV news bulletins tell us what we have already read in that morning’s newspapers. And if they do have something new to say, we have to wait until the following day’s papers for a full and informative report. Television is a visual medium or it is nothing. All we expect from it are colourful, moving pictures and some light diversion. What is more, unlike radio or the written word, TV gets in the way of understanding simply because the pictures are a distraction – unless of course the picture is the story.

TV news bosses, while sticking to the self-serving belief that their coverage is of some significance, nevertheless understand at a more intuitive level that what the audience wants is something nice to look at, and a pretty face is just the thing. In Russia, some stations give the viewer even more, with the newsreader stripping off her clothes. It’s a logical progression, and something that Channel 5 in its early, adventurous days might have been expected to try. Not any more. Not if Kate Adie arrives. For she it was who accused her BBC bosses of being obsessed with “cute faces and cute bottoms and nothing else in between”. In fact, there is something else in between, or rather two things. Perhaps Miss Adie forgot. It happens w

hen you get older.

Some critics have unkindly dismissed Shaw’s change of heart as a publicity stunt. He rejects the charge, insisting that his is a sincere attempt to rid Channel 5 of its reputation for cheap and tacky programming and to adopt instead a more “mature” approach. But what use is the mask of authority when that is all it is – a mask? Give me Kirsty Young any day. I’d happily sit alongside her at her bus stop. I’d even lend her my newspaper in exchange for a smile.

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