I first became aware of “news” in 1956, which was, in retrospect, not a bad year to do so. My own personal news was that this was my last year of primary school, last year of childhood you could say, and 1957 would bring the first year of adulthood, the simultaneously frightening and exciting prospect of high school.
Unaccountably the rest of the planet seemed blissfully unaware that I was, at least in my head if not out loud, singing “Watch out World, here I come”. They seemed preoccupied with other stuff in that year of my awakening awareness of news that was to continue for a lifetime.
Plenty of other stuff had happened since I was born (the years known as AD for After David), small matters like the end of world wars, atomic bombs, Berlin Wall, Long March, Korean War, Indian independence, a new Queen of England, death of Stalin, the voting out and voting in of Churchill, and so on, but I had been too young to take much notice of (or understand had I done so) those interesting times I was living in.
But then came 1956, and my mind sprang to attention as the world seemed to erupt in serious, newsworthy events, most with long-term implications. Suez! Hungary! Olympics in Melbourne! TV in Australia! Elvis Presley! First commercial nuclear power plant! Black protests (Rosa Parks having done her courageous thing in December 1955) increasing in America!
From then on of course, year after year, newsworthy events kept happening until you felt like screaming “stop the world I want to get off”. There was Sputnik in 1957 (the whole world, it seemed, including me, stood outside their houses at night, getting cricks in their necks as they stared upwards at a tiny manmade star moving, it seemed unbelievable, through space. Or, almost as incredibly, it was possible to listen, on a radio, to the high-pitched beeping sound that was the star communicating with Earth. Advanced technology, completely indistinguishable from magic, and destined, though few of us knew at the time, to revolutionise communications among other things).
There was the election and killing of JFK, the build-up in Vietnam, the Beatles, Castro, riots in Paris, the Prague Spring, Woodstock, the assassination of Allende, the end of the Vietnam War, man on the Moon, and on and on as Sixties became Seventies and beyond.
All through these decades, as the world settled back into a new order after the end of World War Two (like a city rebuilding after an earthquake), serious news was related to us in serious ways. Morning newspapers gave sober facts, thoughtful editorials, expert analysis, on the significant events of the previous day at home and abroad. Television and radio had major evening news bulletins to do likewise. Oh, of course there was also frivolous stuff all through the media, but there seemed to be a recognition (especially from the ABC, but other media outlets as well), that there needed to be a core of seriousness for serious times. That there were things that an educated public needed to know.
But then, somewhere along the way to the 21st Century (and this won’t be news to any observant human being), everything changed. Oh, there was no shortage of significant world events, but the way they were, or weren’t communicated to the public changed.
On the pretext that there was more news to report, the “24 hour News Cycle” became a self-fulfilling description, and 24 hour news channels came into being. Instead of single major news bulletins in an evening, short news grabs were pumped out all through the day, and lasted no longer than a ay. And because when you got down to it there weren’t any more significant events than there had been, “news” had to be padded out with a white noise of trivia.
But by happy coincidence this padding served another function. Because so much “news” was being pumped out by the media it was hard to make people (whose parents and grandparents had once clustered eagerly around a radio to hear the 7pm Bulletin) take any interest in news bulletins. So they had to be turned into entertainment. Short snappy tabloid style reports replaced longer factual ones. Nothing could be reported that didn’t have video footage to accompany it. Analysis from experts was replaced by opinions from small numbers of regular ideologues (some employed, some on contracts). Sport dominated bulletins that had once kept it to a minimum, including at times running sporting stories as the lead.
Bulletins had to end on a happy note, so funny animals, whacky people, strange events, of a kind once restricted to tabloid newspapers or sideshow alleys, appeared, often taking more time than a report of, say, World War Three breaking out. And then began to be dotted through the bulletin to lighten it up. Conversely, to add suspense and interest, in the way of a lurid crime novel, the networks began including scare campaigns in which anything and everything in your kitchen could kill you, strangers could slaughter you, children be abducted, yellow hordes invade, aircraft crash, and so on. Every day some new thing to fear – keep reading/watching, we will keep you alert and alarmed, keep you warned about what to be fearful of.
So news bulletins, once so fundamental to a well-informed democracy, turned into glossy gossip magazines with moving pictures. And the “24 Hour News Channels” going the same way except at greater length with much repetition, and slabs of talking heads from right-wing think tanks or shock jock radio or Retired-Conservative-Politician-Land.
Then to compound (if ’twere needed) the problem, politicians, seeing the way the electronic wind was blowing, and realising that the days of thoughtful, longer, discussions of policy or events was long gone, began speaking in sound bites themselves to fit into the new news style. And, to be helpful, associating political stunts, as colourful and entertaining as possible, to go with the three word slogans and three sentence propaganda. There you are, a small package beautifully tailored for insertion straight into “news” bulletins 2013-style.
So a torrent of news noise washes across this land. Little or no information, in fact often deliberately misleading information through the stunts and slogans, just a scrap-book of sound and fury signifying nothing. And, as an unforeseen consequence, a view of the world promoted in which everything is of equal significance, or that nothing is of any significance. Wars and rumours of war of no more interest than skate-boarding dogs or surf-skiing hamsters. No ability of the public to distinguish what if anything is of concern and importance among all the fake fear campaigns and funny animals.
No way now that a child born in 2002 could see 2013 as a memorable year of great world events, or understand what they mean.
Nor could anyone else.