Over the last few weeks there have been two major news stories in the North of England that featured gunmen – the West Cumbria shootings and the Raoul Moat shootings and subsequent man hunt. Both stories were tragic, both centred on men whose actions were the result of mental illness or at least something going wrong in the brain and both incidents were the main news stories of the day. Which of course involves 24 hour rolling news coverage.
The principle of 24 hour news is of course very worthy – the viewer can dip in, watch a bit of news when it suits them safe in the realisation that it is updated every 15 minutes or so. There’s sport, business weather at frequent intervals as well as some good interviews with those making the news. However, when such a major story breaks, the problems begin.
In Cumbria, Sky News broadcast live pictures which included a dead body on the street, presumably not even cold yet. Whether showing this was intentional or unintentional broadcasting is irrelevant. In an effort to bring us the latest pictures a line has been crossed. Further to that on the same day reports were coming out that the gunman was holding hostages. As it turns out this was incorrect and one can only hope that this wild speculation did not in any way hamper the police operation. Air time was filled up with panels of ‘experts’ providing opinion that is based purely on the rumours or reporters asking locals really inane questions (to a local publican – “what sort of man WAS Derrick bird, was he the sort of man who is easily angered?”) which again can be overly traumatic for relatives of those affected.
As for the more recent Raoul Moat incident, by the time the final stand-off was reaching its conclusion in Rothbury the BBC had taken rolling news to its lowest ebb by barking questions through mobile phones at clearly terrified people trapped in their own homes. It was truly dreadful viewing and I am relieved that we were spared the spectacle of the fugitive holding his gun to his head, although Sky did try to capture that magic moment. Even one of the relatives whose mother was called by the BBC was heard to complain on air that he was being “a bit impersonal” – under the circumstances, quite an understatement.
This then leads on to a further issue regarding the rolling news – does the fact that it exists in the first place spur on those who are wanting to make a name for themselves? People can view this and see an episode of cops and robbers taking place in live realtime and may wish to follow suit and gain their own place in notoriety. Studies in America and Finland have suggested that NOT revealing the name of the accused is actually beneficial in the long run and if this was the case in the UK it may actually lead to the reduction in the hours of pointless speculation and allow broadcasters to focus on the old news habits of gathering facts rather than acting as Judge and Jury live on air.