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News is history – and we should make it history

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

July 16, 2017   5 mins

“Here is the news, and this is Alvar Lidell reading it.”

It became a catchphrase.

There wasn’t much news in the BBC’s wartime bulletins, however, and what there was was measured, censored, and sometimes doctored. How could it be otherwise in a war of national survival?

Nor were there many bulletins on the Home Service (the only station, except for the Forces’ and Overseas services) – just four in the day, fifteen minutes each.1 People had things to do. So no need to talk about the future much: first win the war.

No need to talk about the past either: most people had lived it. 1914-18 had not been the war to end all wars; Britain had failed to re-arm early enough and was now paying the price. But this time there’d be no half-measures. Churchill said the aim was “Victory, victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be.”2

And he gained that victory without constant recourse to the media.


Chronic news syndrome

Contrast this with the daily news output of the Home Service’s successor, BBC Radio 4.3 It begins at 5.30am with a 15-minute “News briefing”. Then comes three hours of the Today programme, “the nation’s noticeboard.” In essence, Today is news – lots of it (well, repeated), interspersed with two-minute diversions into sport, faith, sport, weather, sport, the markets, and sport (although NOT if UnHerd gets its way). And just in case you missed anything, when Today ends with the 9 o’clock pips, there’s a summary of… the news. And again at midday. And then an hour later there’s 45 minutes of news. At 5pm there’s a whole hour of it, followed inexplicably at 6pm by another half hour’s news. Then, mercifully, nothing (usually) until 10pm, when there’s a final 45 minutes.

Did I say “final”? Well, not quite, because when the day ends, there’s The Midnight News – “the latest national and international news from BBC Radio 4” (half an hour of it).

There’s no such thing in the newsroom any longer as “a slow news day.” News expands to fill the time available for its excretion.4

Repetition is a full-time job – not just on Radio 4 but the BBC TV News Channel, “Britain’s most-watched news channel, delivering breaking news and analysis all day, every day.”

And “all day” means all night too: 24-hour news – “and analysis.”

Yet with a few exceptions, the analysis is rarely historical. Usually it’s speculation on what next, informed by the transitory. The repetition of news just creates more heat than it generates light.

There’s no such thing in the newsroom any longer as “a slow news day.” News expands to fill the time available for its excretion

The past isn’t past

Churchill once said that the Balkans produce more history than they can consume. Today, the BBC produces more news than anyone can consume, but curiously little history – news-related history (The Tudors is stretching it). It’s not just the BBC, it’s everyone – CNN, Sky, Fox, Al Jazeera &c &c (even the Balkans).

Why does this matter?

Because news without historical context is just facts, not the whole truth. In a memorable campaign speech in Philadelphia before his election in 2008, Barack Obama explained why: “As William Faulkner once wrote, ‘The past isn’t dead and buried. In fact it isn’t even past.’ ”[6. “A More Perfect Union”, 18 March 2008.]

Now, for reasons that may or may not be significant, Obama got the wording wrong. Faulkner put it more succinctly: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”5 But they were both talking about the way that history haunts the Southern States of America.

If the past isn’t past, then news is the latest draft of history. News is indeed incremental history.

How, therefore, can news be understood without understanding the history?

Is it just that the Southern States are uncommonly stuck in the past? Clearly not: it’s the same – worse, perhaps – in Northern Ireland. And in the Balkans; and India-Pakistan; and the Middle East…

Anywhere there’s news, there’s “previous.”

There is a history in all men’s lives (Henry IV, Pt II).

But can’t the facts just speak for themselves? For we are where we are and can only go on from here.

Except that “here” in the “never past” isn’t a fixed point. You can’t zero history like an odometer. And what’s the point of consuming news if it’s not to inform judgement about how to proceed? Repetitive news without historical context just risks a brushfire of facts. Fanned by commentators, it can soon get out of control. Mark Sedwill, the UK National Security Adviser, said recently that the world is less dangerous than it was, but the threat is more complex.6 If that’s so (and I wouldn’t dispute that it’s more complex than in 1940), news needs more context.

Curing chronic news syndrome

So what’s the solution?

Abolish half the news programmes – or at least half of the programmes (ie shorten them). Adopt the Home Service 1940 model, including TV, and give the extra time to history. They already know they need it: “History hours on BBC One are limited”, says Tom McDonald, head of factual commissioning.7

In Britain (perhaps even in the world) the BBC is uniquely placed to re-root news in a way that couldn’t be more different from the commercial channels’ “breaking news” culture. As a public service broadcaster, with its unique funding stream, it should lead the way in saving news from its crisis. Only it has the resources, breadth of journalism and history credentials to do this. Redirect the talent and energy of half the news staff into researching the continuum and then relating the latest events in historical context.

Better to Keep Calm and Study History than just Carry On.

Of course, deciding what point in history to start will be tricky. For some places it’s probably easy enough: America, for instance – 1492. I know there were Native Americans before 1492, but that’s archaeology. In fact, for the US we could probably draw the line fairly safely at 1774. In Britain it would be 1688. Yes, I know: the Tudors? But although David Starkey and Hilary Mantel8 make them interesting, are they really important? (Not everything in history is important.) For the rest of Europe we could begin at 1789 – or, skipping all the Napoleonic nonsense, 1815. Frankly, I’d be happy enough with 1945 – the end of the war we’re increasingly forgetting – as long as we remember how got there. The Middle East? It all began in 571AD, though perhaps there should be mention of the Garden of Eden, which was in Iraq before Saddam and Donald Rumsfeld.

And the Balkans – those proud, brave but obstinate Serbs? Probably, like Pooh-Bah’s ancestry, we’d have to go back to “a protoplasmal primordial atomic globule.”9 Professional historians could advise.

News is history. We should make it history.


Watch UnHerd’s video featuring Allan Mallinson’s point about WWII coverage.

  1. BBC Genome, radio listings for 30 May 1940, http://genome.ch.bbc.co.uk/schedules/bbchomeservice/basic/1940-05-30
  2. Speech to House of Commons on becoming PM, 13 May, 1940
  3. Radio 4: one of the BBC’s five principal national stations, its motto: Intelligent speech, the most insightful journalism, the wittiest comedy, the most fascinating features and the most compelling drama and readings anywhere in UK radio.
  4. Parkinson’s Law – “Work expands to fill the time available for its completion” – modified, Mallinson
  5. Requiem for a Nun (1950).
  6. Speaking at the RUSI Land Warfare Conference, 27 June 2017.
  7. BBC commissioning, history on BBC one  www.bbc.co.uk/commissioning/tv/articles/history-bbc-one
  8. Dr David Starkey: preeminent British TV historian of the Tudors. Dame Hilary Mantel: preeminent British historical novelist of the Tudors.
  9. The Mikado, Gilbert and Sullivan. Pooh Bah (holder of many offices): “I am, in point of fact, a particularly haughty and exclusive person, of pre-Adamite ancestral descent. You will understand this when I tell you that I can trace my ancestry back to a protoplasmal primordial atomic globule. Consequently, my family pride is something inconceivable. I can’t help it. I was born sneering.” 

Allan Mallinson is a historian and former career soldier, one-time Anglican seminarian, Catholic convert. Author of the Matthew Hervey novels and four works of history on the British Army, and the First World War (Penguin RandomHouse). Times and Spectator contributor.


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