Heron Island, Great Barrier Reef, Australia

Wednesday 20 February 2008

News with personality

On the way to work, I saw a huge poster with this slogan, advertising Channel 5's new nightly news programme and the presenter they've enticed away from the BBC.

Natasha Kaplinsky seems a nice enough person, if a bit over-foundationed and highlighted (and I don't even have high-definition TV). But I don't want "news with personality".

Personality, on TV, is an artificial construct, which tends to reduce over time to an increasingly grotesque caricature of a diminishing number of tics and traits that are assumed to make the person in question recognisable. An interesting usage I discovered in Australia (or is it only Sydney?) is to use, where we would say "personality", the word "identity", as in a "X became a well-known Sydney identity" - and that, for me, underlines the artificiality of the idea.

The trouble is, not only is it as artificial a construct as any other style of presentation, there's a falsity at its heart. "Personality" implies that there's something more direct and honest about it: look, they suggest, this is your new best friend coming into your living room to tell give me all the latest goss.

That's not what I want. I want someone of unremarkable clothing and appearance, but with a clear and articulate voice and no distracting "personality" habits (there's a man on the BBC4 news that underlines every point and the end of every sentence with a sideways nod that suggests he's just about to wink salaciously - it drives me mad) to read a concise, reliable and accurate account of the important things that are happening in the world.

I would then like them to go away and leave me to think about it for myself.

This isn't some Daily Mail rant about how it was better when it was all dinner jackets and Alvar Lidell (though it wasn't necessarily worse). This is not about friendliness or warmth or memorability. It's about trust. The cult of "personality" news presentation risks a continuing descent towards the kind of sloppy, partial (in both senses of the word) reporting and hysterical over-reaction that keeps the political atmosphere permanently near boiling-point.

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