20.5.10

BBC News Fails To Score

I watch the BBC every couple of weeks when I return from my work abroad and approach the main news programmes with something like fresh eyes, hoping to learn from carefully-observed reports made by people who are lavished with time and money in order to know more about the globe than I do.

I want to see and hear the world. After all the BBC has 44 foreign bureaux and generates 120 hours of radio and television output every day. I want to learn something about my own country that isn’t already staring me in the face.

So what did I see on Wednesday, 19th May, 2010.

The programme managed to spend half an hour, assuring the viewer there was not much going on.

CARTOON CHARACTER

First, constitutional changes proposed by the new government: a straightforward report but one that merited some serious analysis.  What we got was a casual report to camera by political editor Nick Robinson which assumed the viewer either already knew the background or didn’t care.

Most of his effort seemed to be going into his polished and professional delivery – as a cartoon character, eyebrows twitching above ill-fitting glasses, a great performance, no doubt, but one better suited to an episode of Wallace and Gromit. Form over susbstance, cuddly appearance over content. Sugar not salt.

Second story: the battle for the leadership of the Labour party, with more than a minute dedicated to a flattering portrait of Ed Balls. An odd editorial decision in the first week of a new government battling an almighty crisis. You might think BBC reporters would cover the strategy of the winning team rather than the management changes of the team that’s just been defeated.

Yet we had images of the young, determined-looking Balls, the brains behind then Chancellor Gordon Brown; pictured with his wife; video of Balls being  teased by Heseltine.  Flattery, no hard information, questions or answers.

Then the Thailand crisis, in my view, the worst report of the night with no explanation, no context. Opposition leader Thaksin, former PM and controversial telecoms billionaire, was introduced by the BBC as “the poor people’s favourite”. 

You don’t have to know or care much about Thailand to ask why these protestors in red shirts seem willing to die by the dozen to oppose the government. Something must be going on. Did the BBC tell us?

STRAIGHT REPORTING

James Robbins, diplomatic correspondent, lazily described them as mobs and middle-class (presumably, but the BBC did not ask or tell, these include entrepreneurs and business people who can't afford an equally-corrupt government). He was mostly concerned about whether the protesters would leave us tourists to enjoy their country in peace.

Fourth up, the news of the day: the crisis threatening to collapse the euro. There was nothing to learn from this report as the Germany correspondent simply reeled off an account of Chancellor Merkel’s new law against speculators. This report required a knowledgeable reporter able to comment on the tensions between the EU members, how the markets reacted and what’s the outlook for our economies.

Then the jewel of the night.

John Simpson’s report on Uganda’s churches calling for the imprisonment or execution of homosexuals was very straight reporting, albeit on a topic that obsesses the BBC more than the rest of us.

The Ugandan vicar’s diatribe must have struck a cord or truth with many viewers: you British (the former colonial rulers, Simpson might have reminded the viewer) are obsessed with allowing gay marriage, while British society falls apart and the only religion that's thriving is Muslim. Pretty observant, I thought.

SENSE OF WONDER AND MYSTERY

As this was not a news report but another issue-based feature it could not lead to any conclusion so it ended with a whimper as Simpson pondered oh, how different are attitudes in Africa from those in the US or UK.

At this point a declaration of interest: I am a former BBC producer.  Far from ill-feelings towards my former employer I still hanker after the radio reports of the much-diminished BBC World Service and the great work I witnessed at first hand in BBC radio during the late 1980s and early 1990s.

What is produced now is a consumer product, designed to be easily digestible to the broadest swathe of the population. Like all news output that’s driven by marketing people it assumes that people have no interest in the lives of others, no sense of wonder or mystery.

A good journalist can make any story interesting to his or her audience. The key is to know your audience, to know how to ask questions and, above all, to be interested.  The BBC fails on every count.

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