The Onion is a comic giveaway American newspaper that satirises the awfulness of most American newspapers. ‘Doofus Chilean miner stuck down there again’ is one of their recent headlines, along with ‘Parents honor dead son by keeping up his awful blog’. Now we in Britain can watch the television version, Onion News Network (Sky Arts 1, Saturday). It is the latest spoof of 24-hour news. The first, and probably the best, was Armando Ianucci and Chris Morris’s much-too-brief The Day Today back in 1994. You may remember the hopeless Peter Hanrahanrahanrahan. Morris used to duplicate those cosy chats between reporter and presenter except that in this case he would tear Hanra’s reports to shreds. ‘By “sources”, I suppose you mean one person you had lunch with?’ Barbara Wintergreen, played by Rebecca Front, could have come straight from CNN, and reported on the execution of the same prisoner in different states, complete with ghoulish puns. ‘He’ll be frying out the door…’
The Onion is the same only different. It is less angry than The Day Today but perhaps even more contemptuous. ‘Cold weather is again causing problems for the nation’s idiots.’ There’s a long report from New Orleans, which expects a sprinkling of snow (‘Twenty-five people have so far reported feeling “a bit chilly”’) so the federal authorities, fearful of being caught out again, send one snowplough for every block in the city, and declare a curfew with immediate execution of looters. ‘I think it’s wonderful,’ says the reporter mournfully, ‘that no matter how much God tells us New Orleans is doomed, we still keep trying to save it.’
Congress has forgotten how to pass laws. Women soldiers are to be allowed in combat zones, but only if accompanied by a male chaperone. An autistic reporter — and if more people watched Sky Arts there’d be plenty of complaints, because we are getting into Jeremy Clarkson territory here — goes to the funeral of a young woman killed by a stray bullet. ‘A grim day,’ says the presenter. ‘Not really, I saw two red cars,’ replies the reporter.
In fact the main difference between these pastiches and the real thing is that the knock-offs are slicker, far more carefully put together. Real round-the-clock news is less polished, more likely to go horribly wrong. Lines such as ‘well, perhaps we’ll be able to go back to that report later’ are frequent. The prime minister’s name appears under a picture of the budgie that saved a family. Minor technical difficulties suddenly wreck an entire segment. I once did an interview on what was then called BBC News 24 from the Millbank studios. The chap who had attached my earpiece was new, so the thing fell out and broke into pieces on the studio floor. I listened to myself saying, ‘Well, I can’t hear you so I’m going to answer the questions I think you’ll be asking.’ Of course it worked. You always know the questions they’re going to be asking because you had a 30-second ‘pre-interview’ with a researcher.
The news is on for 24 hours but every hour must be different, exciting, provocative and, best of all, terrifying. If the item isn’t frightening enough, the ticker tape along the bottom of the screen will scare you senseless. Once, while we were all worried about being blown up by Muslim extremists, the Sky ticker said, ‘Massive explosion in Paris. Terrorism suspected.’ That was the last we heard of it. Next day I tracked it down to one paragraph on page 17 of Le Figaro. ‘Small gas explosion in Paris apartment block. No one hurt,’ it said.
The 24-hour news programmes are watched obsessively at Westminster, and possibly nowhere else. For this reason the people who work for the parties regard nothing as more urgent than getting in their rebuttal against the other side, preferably first. So the screen may show victims of an earthquake being dragged from the rubble, while the ticker tape reads: ‘News alert: Labour attacks education secretary’s plan.’ Or the opposite: a lighter item such as ‘Should MPs be allowed to vote when drunk?’ is covered on screen, but the tape says, ‘Thousands feared dead as Chinese dam bursts.’
News comes at you like midges on a Scottish hillside. The handful of people who can cope on air aren’t just multitasking, but doing a simultaneous multicast. For this reason, 24-news likes the twofer, when a pair of people converse among themselves while the presenter, nominally interviewing them, is actually engaged in a frantic discussion with several people miles away, but that doesn’t matter because the pair can entertain each other. The BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg, now sadly lost to ITN, was the mistress of this. I wouldn’t have been surprised if she had been doing a sudoku at the same time.