Tag Archives: bias

How BBC News got a bias against news

Slowly recovering from the damage

Slowly recovering from the damage

In yesterday’s blog, I criticised the lack of world news on British TV channels, including the BBC News Channel. One reason, of course, is that people are not interested in news items which don’t directly and immediately affect them.

They 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.

The Bland Birt Corporate logo

Bland Birt Corporate logo

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.

Before Birt Came - the old logo

Before Birt Came – the old logo

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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The Daily Mail has its finger on the pulse of Britain – just like Margaret Thatcher did

I’ve had a good few reactions to yesterday’s blog about the Daily Mail – mostly in e-mails, a lot of them knee-jerk reactions, some vitriolic – which is good because, frankly, I had got bored with people occasionally agreeing with me. Admittedly, I did dash the blog off when I was overly-sleepy and a wee bit tetchy.

But I do think there’s an appalling knee-jerk reaction to the Daily Mail in which liberals hate – literally hate – what they perceive the paper says often without reading it or, in some cases, they do read what is written but then translate it into what they think is being said rather than what is actually being said.

One person pointed me to a particularly offensive Daily Mail headline about Muslims.

The complaint was specifically about the headline, which reads:

MUSLIM FANATIC PRISONERS TO BE ‘DE-PROGRAMMED’ USING CONTROVERSIAL TECHNIQUES TO ‘CURE’ THEM OF BELIEFS

Now – I could be wrong here but, to me – it seems impeccable straight reportage as a headline because the words ‘de-programmed’ and ‘cure’ are both in quotation marks. In Fleet Street Speak, this means a newspaper does not necessarily share or even believe what is quoted. The word ‘controversial’ is not in quotation marks. The news item which is being reported within the article might be questionable but the facts are well worth reporting.

Of course, the Daily Mail can also spout bollocks.

But I think knee-jerk liberal reaction to the Daily Mail is a bit like Gordon Brown’s reaction to Gillian Duffy, the 65 year-old Labour supporter whom he called “bigotted” during the 2010 General Election campaign when she brought up a widely-held worry about the level of Eastern European immigration into the UK. She was reflecting a widely-held concern about a genuine potential and sometimes actual problem.

Whether any newspaper is creating or reflecting a public view is a nice argument but it can certainly be argued that the Daily Mail reflects widespread public opinion on a variety of topics.

Whenever I read the Daily Mail, I’m amazed by how downmarket it is. Basically, it is as much of a tacky red-top as the Sun or the Daily Star. It’s designed to look like a quality newspaper, but it’s full of OK magazine style stories.

However, it does have and keeps its finger on the pulse of what ordinary people think to an extraordinary extent.

I remember years ago, the ‘Madam Cyn’ case in which Cynthia Payne was being prosecuted for running a brothel. I was working at Anglia TV in Norwich at the time  and, every morning, all the national papers would arrive in our office.

The other tabloids totally missed the point of the Madam Cyn case. They covered the court case as a sex story.

But the Daily Mail covered it as a quirky, near-comic tale of retired majors with gammy legs, people using luncheon vouchers to buy sex and sheer British eccentricity. And that was what, at heart, the story was. It was not a sex case, it was a Victoria Wood / Alan Bennett / Michael Palin style British comedy.

Indeed, the two 1987 movies loosely based on Cynthia Payne’s life Wish You Were Here and Personal Services were both light British social comedies and the second was directed by Terry Jones of Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

Cynthia Payne’s is the perfect Daily Mail story. It is more saucy than sexy and is decidedly tabloid but with a veneer that makes it seem almost genteel to Middle England. It titillated without being, in Mail terms, dirty.

Around 2004, someone I know had to have her photo taken for an interview to be published in the Daily Mail. She was told not to wear trousers for the photo-shoot as the Daily Mail “doesn’t take photos of women wearing trousers because its readers didn’t like it.”

This mightily impressed me then and it mightily impresses me now. It shows an absolutely brilliant understanding of the Daily Mail’s readership at the time (and perhaps today too).

Female Daily Mail readers probably wore trousers a lot of the time for practical reasons, but their image of womanhood was probably that ‘feminine’ women did not wear trousers and they wanted to see in the Daily Mail what they perceived as feminine women.

It would never have entered my head to be wary of photographing women in trousers (largely because the thought is politically incorrect) but it is a superb piece of commercial psychology.

In the mid-1980s, I worked on two top-rating peak-time Saturday evening ITV series: Game For a Laugh and Surprise! Surprise! There was a rule of thumb on those show. It was not a 100% rule. But it was a strong rule-of-thumb.

It was that we should not have appearing on the shows people with tattoos.

Remember this was the mid-1980s before tattoos were common.

The reason for this non-tattoo rule (as I say, it was not a ban, just a rule-of-thumb to bear in mind) was that viewers felt threatened by people who had tattoos. The mainstream, mass of peak-time viewers felt people with tattoos were down-market, aggressive and ‘different’. A tattoo said ‘prison’ and ‘crime’ to the viewers. And, though it felt a bit odd, it was I think absolutely spot-on in understanding the mass market audience for the ‘real people’ shows we were screening in which ordinary people were the stars.

Ordinary people were watching themselves on TV and they did not (at that time) see themselves as being the sort of people who would wear tattoos.

I should maybe point out that we were encouraged to actively seek out non-white participants to try to prevent the shows being filled with totally white faces.

If you want to hit the mass market, you have to know your audience.

Associated Newspapers – owners of the Daily Mail - have a near-perfect touch – they have pitched not just the Mail but Metro at exactly the right mass readership in exactly the right way. They know exactly what the people who comprise mainstream Middle England want and think. The fact that the Mail does not have big sales in Scotland is interesting.

In both those respects – they have massive appeal in Middle England but none in Scotland – they are like Margaret Thatcher. Her ‘audience appreciation index’ in England always interested me.

The backward-looking view of her is that, somehow, she was disliked by the vast majority of people at the time. That is both true and completely false.

Whenever personal popularity was measured in opinion polls, she usually came out badly. But, when she went to the electorate in a General Election, the Conservative Party got in with large majorities. I think the reason was that people felt, “Ye Gods! She is scary but, if WE feel she’s scary and is bullying us, then she’s going to scare the bejesus shit out of the French and tear the throats out of them and anyone else who might be anti-British.”

People didn’t like her. But, in large numbers, they liked her policies.

Maggie Thatcher initially won power because she read the Daily Mail and Sun and understood what their readers wanted – what Essex Man wanted – like buying their own council houses and buying shares. In later years, she lost her touch because – as she admitted in interviews – she stopped reading the tabloids in case they ‘swayed’ her from what she knew was ‘right’. So she went for the Poll Tax which (though perfectly correct logically) was not something Essex Man wanted. Even then, though, another War win and I reckon she would have romped home.

Her downfall, at the end, was that the Conservative Party got spooked and ousted her because of Poll Tax riots and bad opinion poll results. They ousted her during the first Gulf War. The irony is that, if they had not ousted her, she would probably have bullied George Bush into finishing the first Gulf War decisively by taking Baghdad and ousting Saddam Hussein. An inevitable consequence, I reckon, would have been another massive General Election win for the Conservative Party, changing the next 20+ years of British and world history.

Margaret Thatcher had and the Daily Mail - or, more correctly, its owners Associated Newspapers – have their fingers on the pulse of Britain.

Some, of course, might say “the throat”.

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