Is the BBC our best hope for better news?
All the page filling through which empty heads seek to fill their empty pockets, Arthur Schopenhauer.
Schopenhauer lived in a pre television age. To update his quote simply insert ‘broadcast chattering’ for ‘page filling’. There have been so many examples of late which illustrate my concern that naked commercialism is driving our news content, and that this is seriously damaging.
To my mind the BBC remains different to other truly commercially funded news outlets. I understand that it is not immune to the hardships of competition, a subject I’ll come to in a second. But the BBC is still regarded as the UK’s flagship broadcaster and it is at least partially funded by its citizens. These citizens have little choice but to fund it and so they are like customers who cannot easily withdraw their custom. The BBC is then different because of its status as a leader and its captive customer base. We deserve to be served well by our News makers. And I believe we are not being served well enough.
There is no better method to improve performance than competition. And obviously to be effective, competition must have rules and they must be enforced. But there is also a culture which exists within any competitive endeavour and this, more than rules and regulations, affects performance. ‘Diving’ in football ( soccer) is a good example. The rules haven’t changed much but ‘diving’ never used to exist, it has grown over time and, despite changes to the enforcement of rules, remains ‘part of the modern game’. Culture is thus developed over time by the behaviours of all stakeholders acting within the competitive endeavour. In the case of BBC news these include, The Government, the BBC Organs of Governance, the many incredible talents who produce and distribute content and, the audience. In my experience when leadership cedes responsibility for this culture to the individual consumer, it is rarely good for the sector concerned. Which is why I am writing this. Is it possible that the BBC will take responsibility for deliberately leading a change in the culture which presently exists within the news sector?
The success of television generally over the last five decades has resulted in an apparent expansion of choice for the consumer. This is partially true. There are certainly more channels than when I started viewing television in the sixties and the variety of content has obviously increased. But even the most avid curator of their sky box/ freeview recorder struggles now to find the best content. This really is a separate discussion but I touch on this only to make the point that I don’t want to retreat to some golden age of television. Nor do I want to abdicate my responsibility to seek out good content. We have at our disposal an amazing outreach infrastructure which specifically from a News perspective is being increasingly used but, I fear at the expense of content. And if we leave it to me ( for me read any viewer ) as curator of news, to maintain standards then standards will fall. If I need to navigate an ever increasing number of bland identical corridors in the maze to seek out the relatively few secret gardens, there is a risk that at some point, exhausted, I will settle for a corridor, any corridor. And then who will bother to tend the gardens? And how will we learn to differentiate between corridors ( bland news) which though not in themselves satisfying, do no harm and might lead us to the garden and blind allies ( fake news) which lead nowhere and do us real harm.
The forces driving this change in culture, best described as the ‘dumbing down’ of news, are (1) news is drama, (2) news is people, and, (3) news disrespects Authority.
News is Drama
The trend which sees news being presented in increasingly dramatic ways is probably a reaction to competition for attention. It is dramatic enough to show video clips of streets laid waste by War and so the journalists voice over should be pitched in language which is sombre but not lyrical. Too often the words and their delivery seem designed to tug at our heart strings. It won’t be long before we demand that the piece to camera is presented with tears. And hence the journalist edges ever closer to becoming a part of the story.
We have our own feelings, we don’t need journalists to tell us how we should react to news. Their job is to be strong on our behalf and tell us the story with as much objective detachment as is humanly possible. And this is only one aspect of the unnecessary dramatisation of news which includes use of titles ( in addition to and distinct from headlines), trailers, soundtrack and creative editing.
News is People
This maybe generally true but it needs to be the right people given the right amount of time to impart their unique perspective. And each such contribution should be judged by what did the audience learn. If nothing, then it is an opportunity lost, no more. If they are misled, damage is done. And each should be judged by how it fits into the larger picture of telling the story.
The desire to deliver news live as it happens ( ‘breaking’ now has the currency which ‘exclusive’ used to have) and the ability to place news teams into the action more quickly than ever before could be a perfect storm. Those affected are ‘too’ rapidly given the opportunity to speak to camera with what seems little or no preparation and eyewitness testimony is gold dust. But surely eyewitnesses need to be screened and what they might say vetted before they are thrust in front of the camera. Otherwise the story which is told is simply the sum total of who can be grabbed and placed in front of a camera. This is not journalism. And those who are subjects of the story need to be even more carefully handled.
And too often the stars of this people drama are encouraged by the interviewer like the Director of a film. For example, they are told “ you must have been angry” rather than asked “ how did you feel” and so of course they give the desired reply. And naive journalists are prey to those who would hijack any particular set of circumstances in pursuit of their own agenda, thus all too easily influencing the direction of the story.
Finally politics and politicians are a specific case in point. It is true to say that the character of our Representatives is a relevant factor for news journalism. But when exploring this area it must always be in relation to the scope of the position held. Thus care should always be taken to establish the reasons for the questions being asked. And this demands a focus on the substance for which they are responsible. Their policies and programmes. Or their behaviours and utterances. All too often it is easier to simply ‘play the person’ and in these days of personality politics, the politicians are happy to be complicit. We shouldn’t expect nor desire that our politicians be interesting but we should demand that they be sincere and competent.
News Disrespects Authority
It is probably necessary for journalists to be sceptical but it seems that, particularly in the field of political reporting, there is a trend towards cynicism. In this area there is always the chicken and egg question. Which came first, the cynical journalist or the obfuscating politician. But there is a need to break the spiral because it has as its natural destination, the hurling of stupid one liners. Questions which can never hope to be answered. Thus we reduce journalists, probably with Firsts in Politics, to hecklers shouting from behind barriers in Downing Street at our Prime Minister live on TV. This is even more embarrassing than the fate of the entertainment journalist desperately seeking attention from red carpet dwellers. And doesn’t this give licence to all of us to be a little more disrespectful? Why shouldn’t we shout at our Representatives and those in high office? And with little care that they are human too. They feel the name calling as we would.
There may be other forces driving the culture of our news. There may even be others which are potentially more damaging than those I have tried to summarise. But if we are not careful I fear we could lose, or at least reduce the effectiveness of, a crucial part of our democracy. That of an independent ( fit for purpose) media. Lost because when challenged with increased consumption it was taken away by the tide. Washed out to sea by the pressure to be popular.
I know this isn’t new. This subject has haunted us since at least the dawning of the Enlightenment. There is a heartbreaking section in Don Quixote where a serious novelist tells a priest of how he gave up his art before it was fully established since he judged it would fail given that writers and artists were incurably cursed to follow the path of least resistance towards narrow commercial gain. He blames them, and not the audience, saying “ the fault lies not with the mob, who demands nonsense, but with those who do not know how to produce anything else”. Arguably, if the patrons, playwrights and actors really did not know how to produce anything else, they too would be faultless. But not everyone loses their senses simultaneously, so someone along the way could have halted things before they became hopeless.
This must be the role of the leader. To preserve and nurture the worth of their chosen endeavour so that the best new talents, when faced with many other possibilities, choose to follow. Unlike the fictional novelist in question whose story must tell us that Cervantes, the greatest Spanish novelist, before writing his masterpiece considered giving up because there was no longer any demand for excellence.
The BBC is still the leading News Broadcast Media Organisation and it could choose to set itself aside from those others with no Public Purpose and lead a change. I hope so before we lose the capacity to produce something better, to amend our ways, to elevate the Art of News.