Friday, November 03, 2006

Good Night, And Good Luck

I haven't posted for a while because the broadband at home is being temperamental, and I've been busy at work. So here, long overdue, are my thoughts on television.

Having seen "Good Night, And Good Luck" reduced lately, I eagerly bought the DVD of the film, which I watched yesterday evening. It’s a good film, though I hesitate to give it the full five stars because of a certain lack of tautness and some irrelevance in the plot (though perhaps comparing it with “All The President’s Men” is rather unjustified). The performances are very good, particularly David Strathairn as Edward Murrow, and a very sub-fusc George Clooney (who also co-wrote and directed) as Murrow’s producer, Fred Friendly. Frank Langella also impressed with his performance of CBS boss Paley.

The main scope of the film covers Murrow’s attempts on national television to point out the unconstitutional and illegal methods of Senator McCarthy in rooting out Communism. It’s stated clearly that the CBS crew were in no way Communists themselves, apart from Joe and Shirley Wershba (Robert Downey Jr. and Patricia Clarkson), but what concerned them was the damning by association, of hearings held in camera at which accused were not allowed to meet their accusers, and where the whole due process of law was not followed. Clooney admits in the DVD featurette that of course the film could be used to point the finger at the current treatment of Guantanamo detainees, but it’s about more than that.

Murrow’s thesis, expressed at the beginning and end of the film, is that television must not insulate us from real life, by shrinking from telling the public the truth, and being afraid to editorialize. The film makes the point that expressing dissent is not the same as being disloyal. Murrow became disillusioned by the increasing “dumbing down” of television news, and the increasing preoccupation with flashy visual images that he thought distracted from the message. It’s worth pointing out, perhaps, that he began life as a radio journalist.

While, in Britain, the news and current affairs still appears to be taken more seriously than in the United States, we can’t become complacent. While ITV seems to be descending into the search for mass audience, even the BBC is not exempt (with some notable exceptions, such as Radio 4).

It seems somewhat salutary to reflect on the media circus surrounding Madonna’s decision to adopt a child from Malawi, having just watched “Good Night, And Good Luck”. At first glance the two are not related, but the overarching message of the film is that television has a duty, as in the BBC’s charter, “to inform, educate and entertain”, but in that order. Newsnight’s decision to have Kirsty Wark interview Madonna, for example, is coming perilously close to being entertainment. I haven’t seen the interview, and frankly am unconcerned whether Madonna chooses to adopt one, many or no children from anywhere. But Wark is reported to have conducted an interview which did not press the singer about any of her claims, as she would have done, had her interviewee been, say, Tessa Jowell. It seems that even hardened journalists are not immune to the cult of celebrity.

The BBC is funded by public charter, and should not, ever, have to chase ratings. The BBC should have a duty to make unpopular programmes for minority interests, should programme news and current affairs at prime time slots, should question and get answers, and should bring us opinion, editorial and truth. It should not have to worry about losing audience to commercial stations: it should concentrate on making quality programmes that will make us think and sharply question the world we live in, not insulate us from it. However, the current BBC management, not helped by the Government's ideas on the subject, seem bent on propelling the corporation in the opposite direction, and pursuing style over substance.

At least we have relatively independent broadcast media, not controlled by government or their cronies - compare that to Berlusconi's stranglehold on the Italian media, for example - and we should fight to keep it that way.



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