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BBC TwoNewsnight
Last Updated: Wednesday, 1 March 2006, 11:50 GMT
Music and ethics

By Peter Barron
Newsnight editor


    This week I met George Fenton, the composer who wrote the Newsnight theme that's opened the programme in more or less the same way for the last 26 years.

    Newsnight's clock ident
    George Fenton's name graces Newsnight's clock ident
    As you'll know if you've read this column before, he's having a look at the theme to coincide with our forthcoming redesign and, yes, he agrees with me and most of you that any changes should be minimal.

    He told me some fascinating things. The Newsnight theme is played in a 12/8 time signature, at least at first. (Quiz question: what does it do next?).

    The legendary scratchy guitar bit is played on a Gibson SG Junior and could be a nightmare to replicate.

    I, like many viewers, often have a problem with music on TV films, including those on Newsnight
    And here's an interesting thing: George, who now composes film scores, reckons you can have a full orchestra playing during an intimate scene and still make out all the words, but if you have a piece of repetitive electronic music you can't. Something to do with frequencies.

    This was - so to speak - music to my ears. I, like many viewers, often have a problem with music on TV films, including those on Newsnight. My hearing isn't exactly pin-sharp, so my idea of hell is being in a club or noisy bar and unable to make out what anyone is saying.

    I just get alienated and cross, which is more or less how I feel when I hear dance music on Newsnight films, particularly if it accompanies an out-of-vision interview, possibly with someone whose native tongue is not English.

    I spend quite a lot of time making this point to our excellent producers, but I'm sure they would be interested to hear your views on this subject.

    Are you composting yet?

    I should say that I love music on TV when it's appropriate, artfully used and not distracting.

    Justin Rowlatt and Sara Afshar's film this week launching our Ethical Man series was a case in point. It had music all over it - some of it even in the dance genre - but that didn't bother me at all.

    The film provoked a massive wave of e-mails - and none as far as I'm aware was to complain about the music. Instead they were full of advice on how Justin can change his life in the course of the year in an effort to combat climate change and generally live more ethically.

    One viewer, who asked not to be identified, offered this: "I have a home-made composting toilet. Essentially I poo into a bucket and cover it with rotting vegetation. Surprisingly, this doesn't smell at all. Once a week or so I empty the bucket!"

    Frances Wise from Melbourne, Australia suggests: "You and your family may want to consider only buying vintage (let's face it - used) clothing, thereby not adding to the energy burden/greenhouse gases/global warming caused by clothes manufacturing." That suit and raincoat combo might have to go.

    Andrew Hart, based in Tanzania (isn't it good that you can get Newsnight in Tanzania?) says: "If you want to buy some ethical cards or gifts ... get some great elephant dung paper cards ... made by deaf and disabled workers in Tanzania using all recycled materials (including the elephant dung)."

    Ok, we're recycling

    The blogosphere, too, is hot on Ethical Man. I was a little irked to read, before the programme even went out, the thoughts of The Mid-Atlantic Blog, who savaged the idea.

    George Clooney

    "Yes, ladies and gentlemen, the poor BBC journo has been asked to rehash a Guardian idea of 2 years ago...Without mentioning to us that this is a direct rip-off of an idea from a newspaper with a somewhat, shall we say, ideological take on the issues concerned."

    A couple of points on that, Mid-Atlantic. Of course we acknowledge that this idea is a little recycled - we had two ethical columnists on the show giving us their advice.

    But the key difference in our case is that Justin is not exactly converted to the idea of leading an ethical lifestyle. His task is to find out what's worth doing, what's a waste of time, and perhaps what he should do but can't be bothered or can't afford. We have no ideological preconceptions. It's more like Ethical Everyman.

    Anyway, the good news is that after the programme went out, our blogger changed his mind. "Mr Rowlatt is clearly a likeable chap," he conceded. His conclusion: "If he gets out of his comfort zone and explores all sides of the arguments, then [he] could, in fact, produce some memorable television."

    And talking of ethical men and memorable television, look out for our Newsnight Review special this Friday. In an extended interview, Kirsty Wark talks to George Clooney about his two current films, his politics and what's on his iPod.

    Crikey, he's a serious chap. We didn't ask him, but I bet he has a composting toilet.


    Really interesting subjects are spoilt by the way programmes are presented - nobody just talks to you on TV now
    Ralph Tonks
    Oh Peter - what a grumpy man you are this week! Moaning about background music opens you up to the accusation of being a "fuddy-duddy". Quite right too! I hate the stuff. My wife is always complaining that I increase the volume during films etc to hear the dialogue - a vicious circle I do not expect to affect my viewing of Newsnight.
    Mike Chase, Liverpool

    Talking of hearing, people like myself with hearing in one ear only have the greatest difficulty when there are many sounds. The loudest noise wins out, so if a news reporter is speaking in front of a working cement mixer, guess what I hear the most?
    June Gibson, London

    Why it is felt necessary to use as much music in news/documentary items remains a mystery to me
    Tony Goodbody
    You're absolutely right about the music! I too love music but not in the way it's usually used on TV programmes. Not just the music but the incessant sound effects used for the sake of. "Whoosh" and "whish" and other weird sounds and drum beats and all manner of noises. Really interesting subjects are spoilt by the way programmes are presented. Nobody just talks to you on TV now - whilst they are doing so you have to be shown meaningless clips and bombarded with sound. It surely doesn't have to be like that.
    Ralph Tonks, Loughborough

    Peter Barron is spot on with his comments about music mixed with speech. Why it is felt necessary to use as much music in news/documentary items remains a mystery to me (as does the need to show someone filling a kettle when the subject of water comes up or lighting a gas flame when talking about gas pricing). I think it is a lazy substitute for interesting, effective and imaginative prose.
    Tony Goodbody, Hampshire

    I couldn't agree more about the nauseating interference of music "up front" when you are trying to listen to speech. One other thing that almost matches it is the increasing trend of presenters to allow more than one person to talk, often in high animation, at once which results in the viewer hearing exactly nothing.
    David L Stockdale, Doncaster

    I absolutely agree with Peter Barron's comments about electronic "music" on the telly. I suspect that many others feel as I do when trying to listen to talking spoilt by unnecessary background noise.
    Den Davey, Exeter

    At a venue once I shouted to the people on stage 'Can't you do anything about the volume?' only to be told 'No mate, it's as loud as it'll go!'
    Julian Corner
    I agree with your point about intrusive music drowning out the spoken word, and the sad thing is that when you turn up the volume to hear what's being said, it's the intrusive music that gets louder too. Quite why musicians - and I use the term loosely - seem to think that everyone likes music at the highest volume possible, is beyond me. At a venue once, many years ago, I shouted to the people on stage, "Can't you do anything about the volume?", only to be told, "No mate, it's as loud as it'll go."
    Julian Corner, Whitby

    The Newsnight theme is rather noisy, pompous and bombastic - let's have a hearty rendition of the UK theme instead.
    Roger, Bushey

    If dialogue becomes inaudible, surely it's easier to lower the volume
    I tried recently to get someone in the BBC interested in the subject of background music. I suggested that your producers should have words with sound engineers about the problem. I did express the view that the producers should be advised of the existence of peak programme meters. There was no response to this idea that the producers needed education in "sound" matters. I bet that you will not be able to get anyone really interested in the matter.
    Bob Milton, Pevensey Bay

    Crikey, please don't subject us to music of a purely classical nature on the show - if dialogue becomes inaudible, surely it's easier to lower the volume of the music!
    Anna, Sheffield

    Being a devotee of electronic dance music I'm often impressed with Newsnight's rather hip choice of background music
    Tom Brooks-Pollock
    The only question I have is for the viewer with the composting toilet: where does he/she empty the bucket every week?
    Geoff Kelley, Atlanta, USA

    Can I just say that the Newsnight theme is one of the best going? Please don't fall into the usual news / current affairs trap of a re-working that loses all its bombast and gets "softened". I remember the old version of the Panorama theme used to come crashing through the TV set like dambusters; when it was re-done a few years back it was softened and lost a lot of its clout. A little like what's happened to the programme itself.
    Dylan, Cardiff

    Being a devotee of electronic dance music (EDM), I'm often impressed with Newsnight's rather hip choice of background music. I do wonder how it fits with your demographic, though - as a 24-year old, I imagine I'm pretty unrepresentative of your audience. I do share your hearing troubles in loud clubs and bars, though not really noticed EDM affecting my enjoyment of reports. Try ambient, I suppose.
    Tom Brooks-Pollock, London

    I enjoy the column but the first thing I see is that photo. The glum expression seems somewhat at odds with the (often) genial tone of the text. Any chance we could get a happier photo on the column? I'm not even asking for a smile, just something so that makes Peter doesn't look like he's about to burst into tears.
    Luke Aherne, Glasgow

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