Tuesday, February 27, 2007

TV Review - Grayrigg (all channels)

One of this writer's axioms is Paul Theroux's 'I never saw a train go by without wishing I was on it'. I stopped copping loco numbers when I was 12, but my love of railways is sufficiently undiminished to start shouting at the telly whenever it deals with trains. The Grayrigg accident (all channels) repointed fundamental media ignorance of said mode of transport, but now, in the case of what now passes for television news, it seems to excuse the filling dead air, using a lack of knowledge (or a wilful misuse of the facts) to meaninglessly extend a news item. As Exhibit A in a foundation course in Why TV News Is Getting Worse at the University of Please Yourself (formerly the Polytechnic of Please Yourself) Grayrigg would be hard to match.

To anyone with the slightest news sense on the Saturday morning after the crash, the story seemed plain enough - high-speed derailment of some telegenic value (carriage sticking up in air, Richard Branson). Yet on BBC and ITV and, naturally, the 24 channels, it took over five minutes of the absurd 'Going Live' pictures and waffle which so (rightly) animates Private Eye magazine before we got to the stones and mortar of the facts as known. After (one assumes) he was told not to use words of more than two syllables, the admirable and cerebral rail expert Christian Wolmar told the camera what should have been the strapline of the story - that modern carriage construction meant that a potential major accident had fortunately been reduced to a minor tragedy. Yet all weekend it went on - same pictures, same lack of information, Wolmar's level-headed, concise assessment lost in the ether. After all, 'minor tragedy' would simply not do.

It was left, as usual, for Channel 4 news to restore some kind of sanity, Monday night's 7pm bulletin succinctly and crisply reporting the findings of the interim investigations into the crash. The story was condensed and edited beautifully, and the show moved on.

Elsewhere, TV news conducted itself shabbily and inched further on down the tabloid sewer. The death of an elderly lady in the tragedy was of course miserably newsworthy; how could it not be? But wait; in 2004, a gang of platelayers was run down by an out-of-control trolley on the same stretch of line. Four men were killed; it warranted one day's worth of top story coverage and that was it. Fare-paying passengers' lives are clearly worth more than those of hairy-arsed gangers (although Branson's Virgin Trains prices probably distort fiduciary valuations). From the screen whispered a palpable sense of loss that more lives hadn't been snuffed out; one Fleet Street news editor wrung his hands in disbelief in 1999 when the death toll from the Paddington crash wasn't the 270 he'd splashed on the cover but, er, 35. Grayrigg saw the box-wallahs at it; they kept telling us that this could have been a 'major catastrophe'. But it wasn't, and we'd been told why. So what on earth was the point in going on about it? Ah - but that might have meant filling up bulletins with boring foreign stuff, or anything else the red-tops (which now dictate mainstream telly news) regard as alien and tiresome and complicated.

History was an irrelevance; no rail accident prior to Hatfield (2000) was referred to. This entirely ignores the technically comparable 1967derailment at Hither Green (South London, 49 deaths) and Ealing in 1973 (10 deaths), relevant because the carnage wrought there merely highlights the vast improvements in built-in safety features in modern rolling-stock. Thus overlooked was the remarkable incident at Croisilles in northern France in 2000 when a track fault derailed a Eurostar at 155mph (no deaths). But who cares? Only saddo train anoraks and maybe some poor bastards who were long ago bereaved or traumatised. Besides, this would only get in the way of going back to some drenched sap in the Cumbrian fells telling us precisely nothing - but won't such snap reportage get the bosses rubbing their hands! 'Whoo! We beat CNN by 3.8 seconds there! ITN only had 4.42.76 live on GMTV!'

On a more arcane note, the Grayrigg incident also suggests an interesting and picturesque road not taken by TV news and current affairs, and which it is perhaps wishful thinking to assume they would ever take. Railway history records two accidents, at Hawes Junction and Ais Gill in 1910 and 1913 respectively on the neighbouring Settle and Carlisle Line. Both were calamities which would swamp today's telly news. London-Scotland sleeper trains were involved in collisions after signalling cock-ups; on both occasions fire broke out with horrendous consequences. These were in locations far more remote than Grayrigg, were of a hugely greater material and human cost, and yet how were they cleared up, and services swiftly resumed when, conversely, 94 years on, Virgin tentatively predict that after this relatively small prang it will take the best part of a fortnight to resume ordinary working? The fact that London-Scotland trains have not been diverted via Settle and Carlisle due to a lack of motive power has not even been reported on TV news. Aren't these near-fantastical anomalies somehow relevant to the way in which our railways are run, a culture which might prove to be at least germane to any inquiry into Grayrigg? Are they not newsworthy? Of course they are. Time was, a programme like Dispatches, 20x20 or even Panorama might have picked these tidbits up and run with them, at least to make thought-provoking television. No longer.

This is not a plea for jeremiad TV, a why-have-we-come-to-this strand, but a form of documentary reportage that can also take up - for example - matters like Wolmar's point as to why some things have improved and why we should be grateful for them. But as TV news becomes ever more one-dimensional, Dacre- and Desmond-driven, it's probably as hopeless a case as expecting Mr Branson's next train to turn up on time.

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