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Time Please


Speaking of 24-hour news programming in an interview with Le Monde (December 9th) – but in terms which might conceivably be thought appropriate to the news business in general ‑ Gilles Finchelstein, director of the Fondation Jean-Jaurès (close to the French Socialist Party), said:

We live in societies which have experienced, over just a few years, a radical change in their relationship with time. And 24-hour news channels are a chemically pure concentrate of this mutation. The cult of speed for a start: the news channel privileges real time, the direct; it is par excellence the media of the immediate. It’s the cult of now, really. In societies which are all too ready to forget their past and have difficulty in thinking about their future, these channels naturally find their place, for the notion of time favoured by 24-hour news is a sort of perpetual present. The cult of hyperactivity then. There too these channels respond perfectly to this need for constant action … Time is simultaneously accelerated, compacted and saturated; it’s what I call the “dictatorship of urgency” (this is the title of a 2011 book by Finchelstein, La Dictature de l’urgence).

Elsewhere he ponders on the notion of time in politics. There is of course the famous cliche about a week, but what is suggested here is a contrast between the short time that a politician may have on television to “make an impression” – or alternatively commit a gaffe which may cost an election – and the four- or five-year term that a government may have to implement reform or “turn around”, as the saying is, the economy. During the last presidential election campaign, Finchelstein suggests, Sarkozy came up with a new position or a new idea every day, or, as it sometimes seemed, every hour, while Hollande said much the same thing again and again. However, Sarkozy had already been in power for five years and the French understood that “movement is not a synonym for sense”. There is, however, a tendency on the part of electorates not to wait too long to go back on the choice they have made: how long will they wait – three months? six months? – before being “disappointed”, “disillusioned” or, more frequently now, “disgusted” with a new government? Hollande will now, Finchelstein argues, have to establish a discourse that relates to a longer time period. He’ll also, of course, have to achieve something.

The newish (they are somewhat newer in France than here) developments in journalism represented by 24-hour news have both positive and negative elements. Finchelstein finds it positive that, because the channels have time to fill they will often broadcast all of a news conference rather than just its perceived “highlights”; also that they will screen longer interviews. On the other hand there is a temptation to make a minor incident seem more major, or to fill up time with matters that are almost empty of significance.

There is a no doubt apocryphal story that in the early days of BBC radio news the newscaster would sometime come on air at 6pm to announce very briefly “There is no news today.” People who work in the business will be familiar with that feeling, but of course we are never going to announce to our viewers or readers that there is “no news”. Rather we will make the best of what we have and perhaps occasionally our best will be more than the story deserved, with perhaps predictable distorting effects on how reality is interpreted.

There is nothing new about finding fault with the press. Seventy years ago Albert Camus deprecated what he saw as the cult of the scoop, the notion that getting hold of something first was more important than getting things right. He also did not agree that newspapers should entertain (as well as, or instead of) informing. One of the most successful editors of the time, who specialised in producing “lively” stories for his large readership, Camus referred to as “the Napoleon of Shit”. On the other hand the newspaper which he himself edited, Combat, was not itself dull; it was just not trivial.

The reality is that it is not always possible in journalism to do what one might like to do and survive commercially, though it is perhaps easier in a large and prosperous country like Germany which allows for the development of any number of niche markets.

Coincidentally, the edition of Le Monde that carried the interview with Gilles Finchelstein also carries an obituary of the Belgian journalist and novelist Yvon Toussaint. As editor of the Brussels paper Le Soir, Toussaint fought for years against the decision to accept a major capital injection from the group of the French magnate, politician (and former collaborator) Robert Hersant. Unsuccessful, he withdrew from Le Soir and tried to launch a new title, a strongly European newspaper to be called L’Indépendant. It didn’t happen.

At this point Toussaint entered into a highly successful second career as a writer. He had hoped to launch a newspaper which would be the equal of other great European titles such as Le Monde, the Frankfurter Allgemeine or the Corriere della Sera but the conditions did not come together. In practice, he wrote, a newspaper can too often be un miroir qui ne prend pas toujours le temps de réfléchir (a mirror which doesn’t always take the time to reflect). There we go, time again, a scarce commodity, it seems, in the news business as currently constructed.

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