News reporting under the microscope in podcast We Interrupt This Broadcast

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Arts updates

It has been said that journalism is the first rough draft of history, a notion that provides the philosophical basis for We Interrupt This Broadcast. The new podcast, based on a book by Joe Garner, examines the reporting around landmark events and the practicalities and pressures facing reporters and presenters. Among the global news stories put under the microscope are the 2001 World Trade Center attack, the assassination of JFK, the Apollo 11 moon landing and the Columbine High School massacre.

Another episode looks at the reporting after the death of Diana, Princess of Wales in August 1997. The fatal car crash happened at about half-past midnight, after the 36-year-old princess and her boyfriend Dodi Fayed had left a restaurant in Paris. This was before the days of 24-hour news and so, while European broadcast journalists had time to gather facts overnight, in the US instant commentary was required — a tough job when information is scarce.

The series hears from assorted European bureau correspondents from CNN, the BBC, NBC and CBS News, as well as the former press spokesperson for the Queen, Dickie Arbiter, all the while weaving in clips of the reports that went out at the time. There is fascinating detail about how suspicions rose among reporters that Diana may have died from her injuries before it was announced — “sometimes the absence of information tells you as much as the presence of information,” says one contributor — and about the rush to mobilise news teams and get satellite trucks stationed outside Buckingham Palace.

The narrative digs into how Diana was treated by the media — in 2008, the inquest into the deaths of Diana and Dodi concluded that the chasing paparazzi, along with the reckless driving of the driver Henri Paul, had caused the accident — though it decides that the broadcast media not only remained blameless but “did Diana proud”. This may be true of individual networks, but it nonetheless seems a blinkered take on the nonstop reporting and analysis that accompanied the princess’s every move, not just in print but on television and radio, too. 

I have a bigger gripe, though, regarding the contribution of the veteran US news anchor Bill Kurtis, who bookends each episode. His introduction, during which he quotes Walter Cronkite on press freedom and talks loftily about the “courage and daring” of broadcast journalists, all against a stirring soundtrack, falls somewhere between an action movie trailer and the 1990s British TV news parody The Day Today. Such contrived drama is off-putting and unnecessary; these stories can speak for themselves.

Monocle’s consistently excellent The Foreign Desk, presented by journalist Andrew Mueller, has a new summer series that also looks back at big news events, in this case by asking a panel of experts to imagine how each story unfolded at the time. The first episode looks at the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914, while the latest is on the 1956 Suez crisis. The format works beautifully, transforming what could be a leaden roundtable discussion into something more wry and entertaining. 

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