From about half-three yesterday morning I was listening to the joint effort between BBC Radio 4 and 5Live to report the local election results. I can’t remember exactly when – it seems to have been from the moment I turned the radio on – they declared they had a narrative. That narrative was of a surge of support for UKIP.
For some of the programme, Claire Perry MP also had a narrative: repeating metronomically that the long term plan was working, that there were one and half million new jobs, that the economy was recovering. She replaced James Brokenshire MP, and his narrative about a bad night for Labour.
At another point, a reporter who had been hanging around a count in London interviewed a Labour representative on what had actually been a very good result for Labour. That BBC reporter had a narrative, too: that Ed Miliband had “a habit” of forgetting Labour council leaders’ names.
There was also a psephologist, who declared that Labour looked unlikely to reach what he argued was a very timid target of 150 seats.
All based on the results of a tiny fraction of the seats to be declared: and typically small seats.
At just after 5am the election coverage ended; just as Cambridge and large, important London boroughs were announcing results. Naughtie was swept away, muttering about narratives. That narrative of UKIP surge, earthquake, and destruction of major parties – set up so early and on such minimal evidence – persisted throughout yesterday across the BBC and beyond it; and into this morning.
News organisations are very poor at narrative, and the reason is in the name: “news” is just that – latest information, something just happened. Perhaps aggravated by 24 hour news and the competition from the Internet, “news” organisations have become disseminators of narratives based on single incidents, without any context. Any intent to provide information – accurate information – has been set aside in the obsession with using narratives which can be re-used to create “news” as people react to them.
Such narratives inevitably lack originality: it’s much easier to take an existing narrative and re-use it; and not get out of line with competing media. Thus, “news” is necessarily framed in familiarity, not clarification.
And of course everyone knows – or thinks they do – that narratives need a viewpoint. Lazily, the perspective of the UKIP voter; the disaffected, politician-hating voter (real or imagined) has been churned since.
Created from shreds of evidence, mediated through the inexperience of interns and the haste to communicate, fabulated by think tanks and the self-interested: these careless narratives should more properly be referred to as fictions.
And poor ones at that. If the measure of information is surprise – the amount of new information conveyed – then these news narratives are largely worthless. Worse, they become zombies, reanimated when needed by the next person in the media with no time, inclination, or even desire to actually do their job and investigate.