Navel-gazing at the Edinburgh TV festival
We were promised a fiery debate about the role of news in the modern world... but we got news bosses bickering over technical issues.
We were promised a fiery debate about the role of the news in the modern world. We got something entirely different.
‘This is News Jim… But Not As We Know It’, a debate about the future of news at the MediaGuardian Edinburgh International Television Festival (MGEITF) on 23 August, didn’t exactly echo to the sound of clashing ideas about news values. Instead, a selection of news bosses from ITN (David Mannion), the BBC (Peter Horrocks) and Channel Five (Chris Shaw), along with video journalism pioneer Michael Rosenblum, spent the discussion mainly navel-gazing about the current state of the industry: the BBC’s financial dominance over other news organisations, the amount of ITN’s cost cutting, the impact of the scheduling and re-scheduling of ITN’s News at Ten, and the future of the fixed-timed news bulletin in a 24/7 internet age.
So, do our news chiefs not care about content? They do, of course. At this debate, however, mention of content was in technical and commercial terms rather than anything to do with journalistic values.
For example, Mannion talked of his news team’s award for bravely and successfully getting his journalists into Zimbabwe despite the Mugabe government’s ban on British journalists. ‘ITN has kept that story in front of the world’s gaze’, he said proudly. His major concern was the BBC’s commercial dominance; he claimed that the rise of the BBC’s online local news coverage was putting local newspapers out of business, and described the Beeb as ‘in serious danger of trampling over commercial news’ and ‘a danger to democracy’.
Mannion’s only comment about content was that ‘you can’t let the dash for ratings influence the editorial agenda’ because news ‘would cease to be a credible product’. This contrasted with Shaw’s assertion that there was nothing wrong with pursuing ratings alongside providing news information.
Yet the debate never evolved beyond that. Mannion claimed that ITN stood out journalistically because it led a recent news programme with the Russia-Georgia conflict while the BBC led with the Olympics. But it’s not exactly obvious what kind of news value this represented apart from a technical one: being first with the story. ‘It’s not what we cover, but how we cover it’, Mannion added, explaining that ITN cover the ‘microcosm’ compared to the BBC’s ‘macro picture’.
At that point, an important debate about current journalistic values should have erupted spontaneously. It didn’t. Nobody pursued, qualified, supported or criticised the points. We heard more about commercial pressures and giving audiences what they want (or more accurately, it seemed, giving audiences what they were deemed to want) rather than what editors think news should be about – whatever the commercial, technical or audience pressures. Where has all the heated concern and intellectual clash about journalistic values gone?
There was plenty to talk about, like increasing problems with factual accuracy or disturbing trends such as the rise of emotionally-led reporting in television news (see, for example, my previous articles Emotional news in the Control Room and Blanket coverage from Therapy News).
One problem with the debate was that the chair, Samira Ahmed of Channel 4 News, had to weave in the results of a YouGov poll, all about audience viewing habits and their impressions on news. This had the effect of killing off any spontaneous debate. However, one interesting question Ahmed did pose was about whether news presenters showed too much personality. A visual introduction to the issue was shown with clips of BBC News presenters doing silly things in costume for the BBC’s charity telethon Children In Need, interspersed with Bill O’Reilly, a Fox News presenter, calling for his guest’s microphone to be cut off.
Unfortunately these clips confused an important debate about personality-led news style and content with what news journalists did outside of their day job. So when Rosenblum commented that a desire to entertain outweighs the desire to inform, which ‘denigrates the quality of journalism’, it was unclear whether he was complaining about individual newsreaders’ attempts at being a ‘celeb’ or arguing that opinionated newsreaders were only being opinionated for entertainment value. The latter is just one symptom of the drift towards what is termed views-as-news and should have prompted further debate. It didn’t.
Interestingly, it seems audiences favour personality with their news on Channel Five (where the glamorous, personable and highly-paid Natasha Kaplinsky is credited with boosting ratings), but not on the BBC or ITN. Horrocks commented that ‘We don’t in news programmes sell and promote [newsreaders’] personalities strongly’, offering evidence showing that audiences recognised this. After Kaplinsky moved from the BBC Six O’Clock News to Five News, he noted, news ratings went up – suggesting that the quality of BBC journalism, not personality, was key for BBC audiences. This seemed to be confirmed by another YouGov poll result. Only eight per cent of respondents thought the BBC newsreader Huw Edwards was the most recognised newsreader compared to 66 per cent for News at Ten‘s Trevor McDonald. In other words, more people watch BBC News even though the anchorman isn’t nearly as famous as the guy over on ITN.
However, all of this jarred slightly with Horrocks’ other point: that the departure of Moira Stewart, the veteran BBC newsreader, heralded the end of a generation of newsreaders who only read the news, which ‘is not part of how we produce the news now’. Newsreaders are expected to be associated with more than sitting in a news studio. Now they appear on lifestyle, entertainment, charity or comedy shows as well as reporting from war zones. Newsreaders are expected to possess a celebrity-like personality, or at least to become public figures who get out from behind the desk now and again. However, the BBC enforces limits on newsreaders’ work. Few are allowed to offer opinions in newspapers and magazines about issues of the day, unless it’s to plug a non-news programme they have presented.
The tone and content of the Edinburgh debate demonstrated that news chiefs are preoccupied with other concerns. At ITN, for example, news content may seem less important when news budgets are being cut. At one point, Mannion replied bleakly to a question about whether ITN would be doing a news programme on ITV in five years’ time, saying: ‘I couldn’t tell you. I don’t know who’ll own ITV then.’ Meanwhile, the BBC News team has been bogged down in building hugely expensive multi-media platforms, replying to criticism of their content by commissioning various reports and letting them speak for themselves.
For Five, all their changes (less news, more features, less foreign news, a new time slot and presenter) were followed by (and presumably justified by) an increase in audience figures. Ratings seem to be the trump card that justifies any changes, good or bad. Shaw argued that what Five were attempting to do was something different: make news programmes that don’t look like news programmes.
What is the future of news? According to YouGov, when big news breaks, 40 per cent of respondents turn to the internet, 37 per cent to 24-hour TV news, and only 13 per cent wait for the next TV news bulletin. This changing availability of news has affected the main bulletins. For example, Horrocks said that the BBC 10 O’Clock News has reduced the number of stories from 10 to seven to offer a greater ‘depth, context and analysis’. In short, BBC TV bulletin news programmes are becoming more like Newsnight, a magazine news show. In response, Rosenblum argued that anything other than news available at the flick of a switch is an ‘oxymoron’ and predicted that ‘The Show’, an invention that came out of 1950s technology, ‘will go away’. Shaw, however, defended the idea of ‘The Show’, arguing that sometimes people want their news as a ‘narrative linear show’ which was ‘entertaining, informing, with a bit of context, agenda and personality’. He said that getting the news is not just about diving in to digital space. ‘It’s not always about being first, the fastest’, said Shaw. ‘It’s about digestion and entertainment.’
In contrast to this quite self-absorbed discussion, Wadah Khanfar, director-general of Al Jazeera Networks, struck a more interesting note when delivering the Worldview address at the TV festival. He argued that issues about freedom of expression and embedded journalism are restricting news journalism, which needs an ‘overhaul’. Khanfar referred to the carelessness, foregone conclusions, unfair bias and quest for ‘out-of-context information’ associated with immediate news provision, arguing for a ‘media of depth’ that presents the news in ‘a wider cultural, sociological and historical context’ (1). I disagree with some of what he said – but at least his views are the basis for a vibrant debate about what news should be about.
Tessa Mayes is an investigative journalist, author and commentator. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Mick Hume discussed the spate of self-flagellation within the television industry. Nathalie Rothschild argued that while everyone fretted about faked TV phone-ins, they ignored the decline of objective news reporting. Brendan O’Neill showed how the ‘nigger’ incident on Big Brother was turned into a parable about the viewing public. Tessa Mayes reported on the spoof internal video that caused an outcry at the BBC. Or read more at spiked issue TV.
(1) ‘The Worldview Address: Wadah Khanfar. View from the Middle East,’ Programme of Events, MGEITF, August 2008
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