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The media needs to look to architects, rather than speculate with the news

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Predicting the future is an architectural condition, writes Paul Finch

I have fun listening to the Today programme on Radio 4 most mornings, and waiting for what I think of as the BBC’s Psychic News moments. You generally get a warning signal, along the lines of someone ‘is expected to say’, or is ‘understood to be announcing’ or plain old ‘will say that…’

As I write this, BBC News has just excelled itself by leading its news bulletins with a story stating that the defence secretary is ‘refusing to deny’ that ‘if elected’ a future Conservative government ‘would not guarantee’ to maintain budgets ‘at their current level’. So what?

This desperate stuff, masquerading as serious news, would not have passed muster in the days of Brian Redhead and John Timpson. Journalists of that generation liked reporting what people had actually said, or better still had actually done, rather than speculating on the basis of handouts from PR companies, party hacks and the sinister special advisers who now infest Whitehall, spreading their ‘briefing’ propaganda.

Of course if something happens that has not been predicted, or worse still, contradicts what the psychic newsdesk has told us would happen, that either generates another bogus story (‘In a shock turnabout…’) or is ignored altogether because it is embarrassing for the journalists concerned, and no one is monitoring what they are up to anyway.

The BBC is no worse than other media organisations, but one does expect higher standards from it, not least because so much of what it does is excellent. And the funny thing is, you don’t have to broadcast phoney predictions when the world is full of astonishing stories that require no spin, simply explanation.

By way of example, I heard on a Radio 4 business programme last Saturday that Lehman Brothers’ European division has paid off all its creditors to the tune of several billion pounds, has generated a surplus and is now in the process of assessing interest due to the self-same creditors. Evan Davis was the programme host, and he seemed as shocked as I was.

The question is: why haven’t we heard this as news? Thousands of people were made redundant, Lehman was assumed to be an example of unrestrained and irresponsible capitalism that had left its customers in the lurch, and wasn’t our economic system dreadful? Now it turns out that the European operation had current assets exceeding its liabilities when it was forced into liquidation. Since then several hundred staff have been working hard to retrieve the situation, their own personal reward being no job once the task is complete.

One can understand why the BBC, with its suppressed and acknowledged prejudices and ideologies, has a problem about dealing with stories that contradict its world view (public sector good, private sector bad; EU and mass uncontrolled immigration good, anyone who thinks otherwise bad; and so on). I am waiting for the Lehman story to appear on BBC News, but am not holding my breath. Perhaps they think they have already covered it.

By contrast, the way architecture deals with the future is a model of honesty. All building work is about the future, and is related therefore to a fundamentally optimistic condition that we can do things, and do them well. All architecture is about ideas, including ideas about the future – not necessarily in a Buckminster Fuller way, though that is sometimes appropriate – and is rooted in diagnosis, prognosis and delivery.

At Mipim this week, we presented the Architectural Review Future Project Awards. Always a cheery occasion, it was a reminder about how the built environment encompasses and embodies real history. Trivial predictions have nothing to do with it.

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