I do not regularly listen to the Today programme
I never watch Newsnight
the whole lot of them could go on strike between now and Christmas, and I wouldn’t consider myself in any way starved of information
I have a terrible confession to make. I have to own up to a cultural shortcoming that will scandalise many high-minded readers of this paper. It is even more lamentable than my habit of falling asleep during the theatre or my failure to finish reading War and Peace (I got to page 1,216 and then lost my copy, just as it was hotting up). The dreadful truth is that I do not regularly listen to the Today programme.
Actually, it is worse than that. I only listen to the Today programme when I am trapped in a car and have no control over the radio, and so am unable to switch to LBC or some other station. And the reason I do not listen to Today is that it simply used to drive me mad. I would find myself lying there getting more and more worked up until suddenly my hand would lash out as if by its own volition and – crash – there would be another disabled clock-radio.
Although I have a vague sense sometimes that the whole of the rest of Britain is listening to this morning ritual, and that I am the only boy who is not in chapel to hear the sermon, my mornings are none the worse without it, and if anything a little calmer. And in the evening I am afraid I have an even more shameful secret. I never watch Newsnight.
There. I have said it. I used to watch Newsnight, when I was a Brussels correspondent and the show was effectively on an hour earlier; and I have the highest regard for Jeremy Paxman and the whole lot of them (just as I have a high regard for the Today lot, too, come to that – when they are not being so infuriating). It’s just that I have found it remarkably easy to rub along without either of these flagship shows.
And it gets worse. It is not only ages since I have sat down and turned on the television with the express intention of watching Newsnight – I no longer feel any particular need to watch the BBC News, either!
OK, I may catch a glimpse of Riz Latif and the BBC London team if I happen to be floating about in the outer office in City Hall, but I can’t think when I last looked at my watch and said to myself, golly, I must catch the news at ten o’clock, so that I can go to bed knowing what is going on in the world.
And that is why the whole BBC strike completely passed me by. As far as I am concerned, the whole lot of them could go on strike between now and Christmas, and I wouldn’t consider myself in any way starved of information.
Bruce Forsyth could present Newsnight and they could bring back Basil Brush to present the Today programme, and it wouldn’t make the blindest bit of difference to my state of knowledge about the world. And that is because over the past five years I have completely changed the way I consume news.
There was a time when I would look shamefacedly at the entrails of the broken clock-radio, and buy a new one, because listening to Today might have been irritating, but it was the best and fastest way of picking up on what everyone was talking about that morning. There was a time when I would put the matchsticks in the eyelids and watch Newsnight, because if there was some great crisis breaking at Westminster, it was the critical arena in which the relevant minister would be expected to defend himself before the mighty Paxo.
And I am sure there will be many people for whom these BBC programmes still fulfil that function very well. But I have found a different solution, and I am getting ever nimbler at making it work.
I consume vast quantities of news – but almost entirely without the assistance of the BBC. I get up early and read a fair quantity of newsprint, notably [The Daily Telegraph] and the FT. But if I then switch on my computer and go to Google News, I can see what everyone is reading across the planet.
I can watch stories break in real time. If there is some crucial or hilarious piece of footage, then you will almost certainly be able to find it in a couple of clicks either on The Daily Telegraph website or somewhere else.
You can see the news as it is being reported in India, in China, in Canada and above all in America – still the most powerful country on the planet. You can decide what you want to watch, which avenues of inquiry you want to pursue.
You don’t have to wait and fume for a quarter of an hour while some egotistical journalist tries to skewer some temporising politician. You don’t have to worry about the bias of programme editors, because the sheer multiplicity of sources enables you to shake out the bias and work out what is really going on. You can find it all out in your own time, and it usually takes about five minutes.
And if Paxman or Humphrys manages to shred someone so badly – or perhaps even to get so badly shredded in their turn – that it is worth reporting, then you will almost certainly find a trace of it somewhere.
I don’t say all this as some kind of Beeb-basher. It is a great national institution, and at its best the BBC sets the highest standards for programmes of all kinds. Many of my happiest hours have been spent making BBC programmes of one sort or another.
But any watcher of Downton Abbey can see that you don’t need taxpayers’ money to produce a classy costume drama. And I simply observe from my own radically different news-absorbing habits that BBC news and current affairs no longer seem to occupy an automatically pivotal role in the life of the nation – and the strikers are therefore at risk of exposing the nudity of the emperor.
They could have Graham Norton reading the news and they could replace Paxman with Fern Britton, and I am afraid it would be months before I even noticed.