An unpleasant smell produced by the BBC’s chemistry set

A spat between presenters reveals the extent of the overlap between news and entertainment. Why not go the whole hog and bring on the dancing girls?

The facts are not in dispute, it’s their interpretation that gives rise to puzzled conjecture. We know that veteran BBC anchorman Philip Hayton shuffled his papers for the last time, turned to the gorgeous, bespectacled Aphrodite seated next to him, muttered “I don’t like you,” and strode from Broadcasting House leaving behind a trail of mystery.

What was it about Kate Silverton, his co-presenter, that gave him the pip? To judge from the chattering of the blogging community – that collection of loners who swap etherised fantasies on the worldwide web – Miss Silverton arouses many responses in the male breast, none remotely akin to dislike. “SweetCheater” of South-west London, for instance, writes breathlessly of “the female news reader on BBC News 24 who wears the ‘Madam’ glasses… she needs to smack my bottom as I’ve been a very naughty boy…”

Philip Hayton, 57 – who, as a veteran anchorman of 37 years’ standing, must have dropped anchor more times than the QE2, and with less ceremony – would, in the unlikely event that society’s roundabout should bring them together, take issue with SweetCheater. “It boils down to incompatibility,” he explained, “we did four hours of live television every day and you have to like each other.”

So what went wrong? How could it be that the woman who in one man’s eyes was made in Heaven for bottom-smacking should, in the eyes of another, be a pain in the arse? Insiders speculate that it was a clash between old-fashioned news professionalism, as exemplified by Hayton, and showbiz, with which he believed Miss Silverton was tainted.

She had, in her climb to TV stardom, appeared in programmes with such plebeian titles as We Can Work it Out, Big Strong Boys and Hey, Big Spender. Against that, it was said in her defence that she has a psychology degree from Durham University and speaks Arabic.

For all that, however, it would seem that Hayton, echoing Dr Johnson, considered her a “wretched un-idea’d girl”. So be it: one man’s pleasure is another’s poison. But what was truly interesting came from the mouth of neither Hayton nor Silverton but from her agent, Alex Armitage. “Anyone,” he said, “who thinks you can’t do entertainment as well as news is a dreadful snob.” That was more revealing than, I suspect, he intended. For its assumption that news and entertainment are simply part of the same continuum tells us much about what has befallen journalism in the past 20 years or so. There was a time when news and current affairs were taken seriously – not solemnly, but seriously. The aim of the journalist was, while scrupulously separating fact from opinion, to provide the reader or viewer with information and analysis. Not any more, or at least not very much.

Every newspaper, and certainly every TV channel, sees news as a form of entertainment. There are a number of reasons for this. News is expensive to gather and analysis requires patience and understanding on the part of the journalist and the listener, and ours is an impatient and superficial world. Secondly, TV by its nature is about appearance and impressions rather than substance or thought. Thirdly, round-the-clock, 24-hour news lends itself to fast-paced, quick headlines, ever revolving, creating a mesmeric sense of movement and action without requiring the viewer to engage his or her mind.

We have become so used to “news” presented in this way (news in inverted commas because so much of it is generated in the overheated minds of un-idea’d PR girls and spoon-fed to compliant journalists) that the process has become self-perpetuating. We get the kind of news we expect – we like and want news as entertainment.

Why else should the BBC set so much store by the chemistry between two news presenters – one male, one female? What, in the name of journalism, is the point of that? Hannan Swaffer, James Cameron, Walter Lipman, James Agate, HL Mencken, Harold Evans: did any feel unable to ply his craft for the lack of a lip-glossed vamp miming emotional responses at his elbow? And for that matter was there ever a woman journalist worthy of the name who couldn’t function without a veteran wheezily pumping chemistry in her direction?

No, Alex Armitage is right. Anyone who thinks of news as somehow above entertainment in the natural order of things is a crashing snob. Some, it is true, have yet to get the message. How much more egalitarian and in temper with the times were Jeremy Paxman to climb down from his high horse, pick up a top hat and cane and patter “Now a little song, a little song…”

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