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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