Much has been written this week about TVNZ’s new ‘current affairs’ show Seven Sharp. This blog will not be a review of that show – as enough has already been said. Probably goes without saying that I agree with most of the criticisms – the news stories are too ‘lite’, they are valuing viewer opinion over expert opinion and the reliance on social media is both a distraction and probably serves to put off many of TV One’s hard core, older audience. But I think the emergence of this show is just another indication of the sad state of current affairs and solid journalism in this country – and that got me thinking…
I used to be – in my teens and during my idealistic 20s – a hard core news junkie. I was on top of most local and international (to be honest I cared more about the latter) news, and had an opinion on pretty much everything. I watched the news regularly, I read newspapers regularly, I would seek out copies of the Economist to read (and even had a subscription at one point). And – as a result of all this – I am confident I knew a great deal about what was going on in the world, and what the key issues were facing us as a nation and as a human race. Can I say the same for my thirty-five year old self? Without a doubt, no.
I will admit that a lot of the blame sits with me. While living in London I led a hectic lifestyle and barely watched scheduled TV – let alone the news. I berated the crassness of the free newspapers handed out on the tube (Metro etc), but I would seldom buy a copy of the Guardian (when I did though I always told myself ‘I should do this more often’). I would occasionally check the NZ Herald site to see what was happening in New Zealand, though generally relied on the kiwi grapevine to keep me informed. But still – due to the marketing of newspapers – both tabloid and otherwise – on the streets of London, I felt like I wasn’t missing out on the main stories of the day.
But then I came home to New Zealand. We have fantastic journalists – both print and TV – in this country, and this blog is not intended as offence to them at all. But I do wonder what visitors to New Zealand think when they switch on the TV news or pick up a copy of the Herald. That we care not a jot about foreign news? That we pay more attention to reality TV than the reality of the real issues facing the world we live in? That sport is just as important (if not more) as intelligent political discourse and debate? But it isn’t what visitors think that troubles me, it is what our young people are brought up thinking is ‘news’. I remember at primary school we had to talk about Current Affairs every week – and had stories on Olympic games in far-away lands, US presidential elections, and civil wars. I don’t remember stories about penguins named after animated movies or sheep that could predict sports results.
Many place the blame for this right back on to people like me – thanks to TV ratings and purchasing power. Apparently hard news doesn’t rate – so TV channels have to cater to the whims of a nation with, apparently, a very short attention span and an IQ in single digits. Two things to say about that. First – can anyone actually explain to me, in a way that makes sense and actually shows that it works – how our ratings system works? My understanding is some people (and the number isn’t high) have boxes installed in their homes that pay attention to what they watch. But, these boxes don’t allow for the fact that a significant number, if not the majority, of kiwis now watch their TV via MySky, a recording device or the internet – so not at the scheduled time. Secondly – and this may be a controversial one for some – I think it is the responsibility of the fourth estate to INFORM us about what we NEED to know, not entertain us with what they think we are interested in.
For all its faults, Aaron Sorkin’s show The Newsroom makes this very same argument (albeit in a wittier and more erudite way). Indeed, in the pilot episode it was pointed out that – in the early days of TV – the government granted commercial operators the license to use channels on the basis that they would devote an hour a day to news and current affairs. So basically, they had 23 hours to entertain and make money, and the other hour they had to use to keep their viewers up to date with what was happening in the world. I am not sure if a similar deal was struck in New Zealand – probably not – but I would urge our existing networks to at least make an effort to present real news. And not just TV – but print as well. If I could pick up a copy of The NZ Herald without seeing a picture of a pretty girl or celebrity on the front page, that would be really great. It isn’t too much to ask, is it?
And I am not just ranting for the hell of it. At the heart of it I am concerned that the focus on light and fluffy means New Zealand is becoming cut off from what is happening in the rest of the world. That we are becoming insular and celebrity-obsessed (and I know I can talk on that front…but hear me out). As I said above – I worry about what my nieces are growing up hearing (or rather, not hearing) about. I know as a teenager I was aware that New Zealand was a very special place to live – and that there were conflicts and wars going on overseas. This made me not just grateful for my place in the world, but also interested to find out what I could do about it, what international efforts were happening, what New Zealand’s place in all this was. If we have a generation growing up not knowing (and therefore not caring) at all about the issues facing the Sudan, or Syria or the Euro economy, what will that mean for New Zealand? Nothing good, I can tell you that.