published by Press Gazette,
UK, February 15, 2002)
NEW GOLDEN AGE?
take us back to the old-style BBC news, pleads Ian Richardson...
There are some
broadcasting types who are convinced that nothing is ever as good
as it used to be. To them the past was brilliant and the present
and future are crap. They are the sort of people who would still
like their cars to leak around the windscreen, have punctures every
few weeks and require a full service every thousand miles. They
are what might be termed people from a Golden Age.
I don't much believe
in Golden Ages - certainly not when it comes to the old days of
television news. Ollie Wilson [in a recent issue of Press
Gazette] seems to be a Golden Age Man, fretting that the
BBC's star correspondents are indulging in punditage - a blend of
punditry and reportage -- confusing and misleading viewers. He longs
for the days when television reporters stuck strictly to the facts
and kept all but the blandest, carefully balanced, carefully sourced
observations to themselves.
Not me. In my
view, BBC television news has never been better, and I speak as
both a viewer and a former practitioner. I first worked in BBC television
news back in 1980 when a mouthy Kate Adie was beginning to carve
out a name as a reporter and Angela Rippon was still the talk of
Britain for revealing her elegant legs and dancing skills on Morecombe
and Wise. The news bulletins were a national event, presided over
by Angela - then one of the few journalists on the news presenting
team - plus Richard Baker, Kenneth Kendall, Robert Dougall, Peter
Woods and Jan Leeming.
They were great
times and we were proud of what we produced. But we were constantly
reminded that television was almost always less immediate than radio,
and frequently lagging behind the daily newspapers. Most foreign
picture stories were at least a day old, and even a major news event
within London could take hours to get on air. Satellite links were
very expensive and had to be used sparingly. The graphics were handmade,
using scissors and paste, and were consequently dull and static.
Our scripts were competent, but unexciting. There were no interviews
and no explanations because both of these were judged to be the
province of Current Affairs, which lived in intellectual isolation
down the road at Lime Grove.
About 10 years later, I was back at Television Centre and much had
changed. Video tape had completely replaced film, satellite links
were routine, computers were generating many of the graphics, and
television was no longer the slowest to report a story. It was fun
and it was exciting. But still, it lacked something.
was the rounded telling of a story. We dispensed the facts and only
the facts - always giving even-handed coverage to both sides of
an argument - and often leaving the viewer none the wiser. It was
soft-option journalism. But we congratulated ourselves that we had
fulfilled our journalistic duties as public broadcasters.
Ireland, as an example. Week after week, month after month, year
after tedious year, the facts were gravely trotted out. But what
did they ultimately tell the viewer, numbed into a state of crippling
apathy? Answer: almost nothing that really mattered. And Heaven
forbid the correspondent tempted to say "forget 'the facts'
for a moment and let me tell you what I think is really going on".
Ollie Wilson seems
to be saying that this sorry state of affairs is to be applauded.
"Let the viewers make up their own minds," he asserts.
But how can they if they are given "facts", but no context?
Of course, I need
the "facts", but what use are they if I never learn what
is happening away from the gaze of Joe Public? Two opposing points
of view, given equal prominence, is not just inadequate journalism,
but it may even be misleading if, say, one of those views is held
by someone of no consequence. By all means give minority points
of view, but let's also be told whether this view is ever likely
to change a thing.
No longer with
the BBC, I now sit at home as an ordinary viewer and watch with
admiration and envy the Ten
O'Clock News with its clever and informative graphics, its
instant access to the world via satellite links and videophones,
and its array of star correspondents doing their darndest to give
me the answers to that most basic of questions: what is going on?
The rise of the
star correspondent has been a gradual process. After all, John Simpson,
with his distinctive brand of Boy's Own Adventure Journalism, was
there long before Andrew Marr, but it is Marr who so dramatically
led the way with a new style of reporting. Overnight, the BBC political
coverage was transformed. Suddenly, here was a man enthused by his
specialism and bursting to explain British politics with clarity
and humour. Here was a reporter not frightened to tell us what,
in his best judgment, the story was all about. Hurrah!
has also been brought alive by Evan Davis, the new Economics Editor,
replacing the overpaid, pompous, impenetrable and thankfully rarely
seen, Peter Jay. At the same time, Business Editor Jeff Randall,
is beginning to get to grips with explaining the business world
after a decidedly iffy start. Abroad, there is a whole array of
thrusting, intelligent and thoughtful young correspondents.
Ollie Wilson attacks
the Washington correspondent, Stephen Sackur, for resorting to describing
the body language of US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, in a
story about Camp X-Ray. Why not? A politician's body language is
often more truthful and informative than the words they utter.
complains about the failure to always source the information. But
does it necessarily matter, if the correspondent is accurately telling
the story? Better that than resorting to the blatant fakery of "sources
close to the Chairman" (often the Chairman himself) and "as
one taxi driver/soldier/backbench MP put it" (a quote made
up on the way to the office). And pray tell, what is wrong with
Andrew Marr observing that politics is better than the alternative
[war] or Social Affairs Editor Niall Dickson warning that "we
ignore these bugs at our peril"?
There are, of
course, attendant dangers with the star system. Stars have egos
- often very big ones - and this can lead to excess. Look no further
than the "liberation" of Kabul by the normally rock-solid
Simpson. And a recent piece-to-camera in which Marr walked off the
screen to illustrate a point about Tony Blair was more Tomorrow's
World than the 10 O'Clock News.
There are dangers,
too, from the growing practice of BBC correspondents going into
print on their own behalf in magazines and the daily press. A recent
Sunday Telegraph column by Jeff Randall indulged in such
heavy Euro bashing that it compromised his position as a detached
BBC observer. "Only the most partisan euro-warriors could argue
that Britain needs the single currency", he said in part. This
is unacceptable, just as it would be if Marr said "Vote New
Labour" or Dickson advertised BUPA.
Still, these are
relatively small and rare excesses in the overall big picture. Better
to make the occasional misjudgment than take no risks at all. It's
certainly a price I'm prepared to pay as a viewer because when I
now sit down before my TV set each evening, I feel that I am being
better informed and better engaged than I ever was. Perhaps there
is a Golden Age. This could be it.