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Why Do BBC, ITV and Sky News Not Report What is Happening In The World?

Posted: 19/12/2012 10:55

America is often criticised for being insular.

It was said that, in the build-up to the Gulf War, some people in the southern states - genuinely - were nervous because they believed the war would be happening in the Gulf of Mexico.

The blame for Americans' insularity is usually put on US TV News which, it is said, reports almost entirely internal US stories.

But the words pot, kettle and black leap to mind.

Two people from Ireland were staying with me last week.

They complained that, on Irish television, the RTÉ news reports were almost entirely inward-looking reports about things happening in Ireland. One or two news items from the UK might be tacked-on briefly at the end.

But it is the same in the UK.

Blinkered, insular news reporting. We hear very little about what is happening in the outside world. One school shooting in the US is not wide world reporting.

I worked for 25 years or so in television, mostly in Entertainment but, early on, I was a Researcher on the BBC's start-up teletext service CEEFAX, part of BBC TV News. This meant, in effect, being a cheap Sub Editor and, during the real Sub Editor meal breaks, being the person who, unsupervised, decided what went out.

We had Reuters and Press Association teleprinters spewing news in to us all the time and I remember one day stories coming in about massed tank battles involving (it was said) Soviet troops in Ethiopia or, I suppose, it was probably Eritrea. I did not report these on CEEFAX because the major full-scale war had been going on for months and had never been in the headlines.

In the same way, much later, the war in Liberia was almost never reported on British TV news because it went on for so long, because there were no TV reporters out there and because it overlapped with the First Gulf War.

I was thinking about that this week when I was watching vivid Al Jazeera reports on the civil war in Syria.

On the BBC TV News programmes that same night - zilch, nothing, nada. Syria crops up occasionally but not regularly.

You would have thought that, with rolling 24-hour news channels, we would be getting more news, but we simply get the same news repeated every 15 minutes.

In a mainstream half hour BBC1 or ITV1 or Sky news broadcast we get, perhaps five news stories reported. Almost all are domestic UK stories.

Africa and Asia go virtually unreported.

'Extended' news coverage means Europe and the US.

To get regular news on Africa, Asia and Australasia, you have to watch Al Jazeera.

There is no reason why the BBC or ITN or Sky could not have a 15 minute slot every hour in which they report genuine World News. Quantity, in this case, is more important than in-depth reports.

Of course, the demand for what is happening in South America or South East Asia is not as high - unless there is a visually exciting tsunami.

I remember talking to a reporter on Granada TV's World in Action programme years ago. He had risked his life in Nicaragua and Venezuela with bullets whizzing over his head and death threats from the government. But, he said, he knew that when his reports were networked on World in Action, they would get relatively low viewing figures... Whereas a relatively easy-to-make programme on the NHS or UK schools would get much, much higher viewing figures because those subjects touched people's lives.

People do want to know about hospitals, schools and roads in the UK. They generally do not want to know about war in the Congo or trade wars in Asia... Although North Korea's Kim Jong-un and London Mayor Boris Johnson may run neck-and-neck in the "and finally" humorous eccentricity stakes.

Another problem with BBC TV News at the moment, though, is the deadly legacy which remains of former BBC Director General John Birt's grey grip on journalistic style.

Birt came up with this theory that his presumed intellectual inferiors - the 'ordinary' men and women of Britain - did not understand the background to the news they were told in news summaries. He came up with the theory that there was a "bias against understanding" in news reports... so he directed that the background to every news story had to be explained any time there was any news.

The BBC used to divide factual reporting into two separated areas: News and Current Affairs.

News reports did just that. They reported news.

Current Affairs programmes (like Panorama) reported the background to the news.

Birt abolished the distinction, resulting in news reporting where you could not see the wood for the trees.

During his grey, foggy time at the BBC, I once heard a news item.

Some ordinary (ie not high profile) person had got shot in Northern Ireland.

I actually timed the report.

In the "news" report, there was just under three minutes of background on the 600-odd years of Irish Troubles which led up to the shooting and under 15 seconds reporting what had actually happened when this person had got shot.

Under Birt, news reporting had a "mission to explain" which actually became a mission which lessened not just the amount of news reported but the actual investigative reporting of reality.

In days of yore, BBC reporters would go out to uncover what was actually happening. Under Birt, the theory was that reporters should sit in their office, cool, calm and collected, look at all the sources they had, decide what was happening, then write their report.

They would then try to make this near-academic monologue more 'visual' by going out to interview people from whom soundbites could be extracted illuminating the pre-determined angle of the report. If interviewees inconveniently gave a different view, the reporter, it was suggested, should try to get the 'correct' angle out of them. If they continued to spout the 'wrong' view, then they would not be included in the report.

Because 'ordinary people' were deemed intellectually inferior, the message of any report had to be reinforced by relevant vivid visuals. This still lives on.

Two days ago, BBC News had a serious political story that LibDem leader Nick Clegg had likened the creation of coalition government policy to the making of sausages. The report was filmed not with the reporter standing in the Palace of Westminster or in Whitehall or talking to a Liberal Democrat but - you guessed it - standing beside a sausage machine inside a sausage factory.

I once saw a BBC political correspondent describe in a serious political report what was happening in the 'Westminster circus' by standing in a circus ring while acrobats flew overhead on a trapeze.

The BBC has mostly recovered from Birt's pseudo-stylistic insanities.

But not totally.

The more analysis and background of news you have in news reports, the less time there is for actual news items.

Birt's "bias against understanding" has resulted in a bias against actual news reporting.

There is also the risk, of course, that a "mission to explain" means explanation and editorialising outweigh reporting... and 'explanation' and 'editorialising' can easily overlap into opinion.

BBC News should report the news.

It should not have an opinion.

 
 
 

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