Wednesday, November 21, 2001
In conducting its attacks on Afghanistan, it can be argued that the Americans have relied too much on flashy technology and not enough on old-fashioned, on the ground intelligence. But they’re not alone – you can level the same charge against the TV channels reporting the war.
It’s a standard American mistake to confuse technological superiority with real superiority, but of course smart bombs are only as smart as the people aiming them. Spending lots of money on kit and then not being able to use it without making a huge mess of things is something that Sky News knows a fair amount about as well.
Sky’s NewsWall, SkyStrator and video stings complete with martial music must make Chris Morris wonder why he bothered at all. Murdoch’s executives obviously watched ‘Brass Eye’ with their notebooks out, muttering ‘Oh, that’s a good idea’.
But behind all this nonsense is a marked lack of joined-up thinking. Some of Sky’s journalists in the field are doing a pretty good job – David Chater, for example – but despite having all the time necessary for some intelligent analysis back in the studio, instead we see the same stories repeated on top of an underlying set of assumptions that are never questioned.
The military analysts they wheel on can discuss the effect of a daisy-cutter bomb, and the designers in the graphics studio can do up a nice graphic of this monster being lumbered out the back of a Hercules on a pallet, but you’ll not see anyone on Sky asking whether it’s a good idea to be dropping such devices in the first place.
The anchors on the shows are so lightweight that it’s no wonder the coverage drifts aimlessly around. While a tape of Osama bin Laden is dismissed as ‘Taliban propaganda’, the clip of a gung-ho George W. that immediately follows is presented as ‘the latest news’, as if it were inherently more reliable.
Like the middle-market tabloids in the UK like The Mail and The Express, Sky News accompanies its selective accounts of events with a limited range of opinions that won’t upset its viewers. Just occasionally a guest will make a more interesting point, and the anchors look aghast before it’s back to Francis for the weather.
Of course it’s my own fault for mistaking quantity for quality. Despite its immediacy, I find it a waste of time watching Sky News, because I only have to check everything they say against a more reliable news source later. Watching what the BBC and Channel 4 can do with a couple of videophones and a commitment to fair-minded broadcasting is a heartening contrast. And when David McWilliams is talking to Noam Chomsky on TV3’s Agenda programme, you begin to see that there is a wider range of opinion about events in Afghanistan than Sky can imagine.
When the BBC’s John Simpson is sifting through the rubbish in an abandonned terrorist training centre, or reporting on the hoof as he follows the Northern Alliance into Kabul, you know he’s asking himself ‘What is really going on here, and why should I believe what I’m told?’.
Meanwhile, Sky’s James Forlong is on board a US aircraft carrier getting excited over all the cool bits of kit. Chiselled pilot Chuck is telling him, ‘I’m going out on these missions and just doing my job,’. Well at least one of them is.