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Why do BBC, ITV and Sky News not report what is happening in the world?

(This piece also appeared in the Huffington Post and on Indian news site WSN)

Blindfolded to what happens elsewhere

BBC, ITV and Sky TV’s target audience in their news reports

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 this last night when I was watching vivid Al Jazeera reports on the civil war in Syria.

On the BBC TV News programmes last 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.

That is no reason, though, for not reporting what happens in the world.

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The tsunami of anarchy which will be released by the death of newspapers

Last night, I went to the Fulbright Lecture at the British Library, given by the Financial Times’ editor Lionel Barber.

The subject was “Adapt or Die: The Future of News and Newspapers in the Digital Revolution”.

In 2009, more than one hundred US newspapers closed down and, in 2007-2009, newspaper advertising revenue fell by 10% in Germany, 21% in the UK and 30% in the US. Circulations for printed newspapers are falling like lemmings as readers and advertisers move online.

One saving thought seems to be that people may be prepared to pay for comment and analysis, though probably not for general news. The Financial Times is in the fortunate position of being a niche newspaper. It mostly reports on a specific subject area where people are prepared to pay for analysis, comment and specialised reports.

But newspapers in general have not been delivering news for the last 50 years.

I am ancient enough to have been at college doing Communication Studies (radio, TV, journalism, advertising) when the first issue of Rupert Murdoch’s Sun was published.

The guy who supervised the journalism part of our course was the Production Editor of Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World. On the morning the first edition of the new Sun was published, he went through it page-by-page with us, pointing out that all the main stories were not News as such: they had all been reported in the previous evening’s TV news or were, in some way re-heated old news.

After that, I paid closer attention to what was actually printed in newspapers and developed my taste for the Daily Telegraph. If you look at most newspapers, you can actually visually see that they are magazines. The Guardian is a prime example. Look at its news pages and you see big rectangular blocks of text which analyse and/or give insight into news stories. But they are almost never reporting new News.

The Daily Telegraph has lots of columns with different little inches of different stories, most of which have not been included in the always superficial TV and radio news. I blogged a couple of months ago about how I once met a Daily Telegraph sub-editor at a party who hated working at the paper for exactly the same reason I loved reading it. People would yell across the room at him: “Give me a three-inch story!” not caring what the actual story was.

And, except at election times, the Daily Telegraph tends to keep the old-fashioned division between news and comment (which most US newspapers also maintain).

Newspaper and TV News editors used to be – and still are – gatekeepers to what is considered news. But, with the internet, power has in theory moved from publisher to reader.

In fact, forget gatekeepers. Forget gates. Think dams. One gigantic dam behind which is all the water in the world.

In the past, newspaper and TV News editors were in charge of dams which kept most of the water behind their dams and let a few selected trickles through. Now the mother of all dams is opening and uncontrolled, uncontrollable amounts of information are going to be unleashed not just day-by-day but second-by-second.

In my erstwhile youth, if you wanted to find out facts, you had to go to a library. Librarians and the publishers of encyclopaedias were the damkeepers of knowledge. Now Wikipedia, Project Gutenberg and their ilk are opening the dams which should result in almost all (and, in theory all) current and past knowledge being available instantly anywhere in the world.

If you are sitting on a camel in the middle of the Australian desert outside Alice Springs then, on a 3G device, you are now able to instantly find out which films are being screened at all the cinemas in Glasgow tonight or which dates the Emperor Caligula ruled Rome – and you can download and read a copy of Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield or Homer’s Iliad.

In future, it seems, all news will be available to everyone pretty-much instantly via Twitter, Facebook and every other social network known and as yet unknown to man and woman. The first news of the US attack on Osama bin Laden’s compound in May came on Twitter.

What will be needed is what, last night, Lionel Barber was understandably most scathing about – so-called news aggregators like The Huffington Post (which sometimes carries my blogs), The Drudge ReportThe Daily Beast and even Gawker, whose slogan is “Today’s gossip is tomorrow’s news”. At the moment, these (depending on your viewpoint) could be said to pirate other news sources and regurgitate the selected news.

The Financial Times currently employs 130 foreign correspondents to collect and interpret news abroad. What will be needed in future, I presume, is some way of analysing, interpreting and compacting news from several hundred million correspondents including the blogosphere.

Newspapers may become aggregators.

No, I have no idea how or if that will happen.

And I have no idea what will happen.

But traditional newspapers were dead 50 years ago; they just did not know it.

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News of the World. Forget the hacks. It’s The Bill you always have to pay.

I have worked as a researcher and sub-editor for BBC TV News (via their old Ceefax teletext service) and, briefly, in the newsrooms at Anglia TV, Granada TV and ITN. I have known a lot of journalists. But even I was shocked by the News of the World and other tabloids’ amorality.

I don’t mean the telephone hacking scandal which has now seen Rupert Murdoch close down Britain’s biggest-selling newspaper.

I mean the cheap Killer Bitch movie and Katie Price’s ex-husband Alex Reid being caught on camera with his trousers down.

Police corruption comes later in this blog.

In what must have been a moment of madness I financed Killer Bitch without reading the script (look, it was cheap) and I was away at the Edinburgh Fringe for weeks when shooting started.

While I was away, a sex scene was shot between Alex Reid and the lead actress, the director’s girlfriend/partner.

Alex Reid’s chum/manager asked the director if it was OK to have a photographer on set that day – not to take photos of the sex scene itself but just of Alex arriving, being on-set, being glamorous. The director said Yes.

And, of course, when the sex scene happened, click-click-click and off in a corner Alex’s photographer goes to e-mail out his photos.

What the director didn’t know was that the manager guy had, all week, been playing-off the News of the World against The People to get a higher price for the sex scene pictures. The People ran their photos on the cover and in an “exclusive” double-page spread that Sunday.

But the News of the World, unknown to anyone else, had secretly set up a hidden camera in the grotto where filming took place. They took their own photos and ran a single-page ’spoiler’ about “sickening footage” in the “vile and degrading hardcore porn film” in which Alex had been involved in a “disgusting rape”.

In fact, it wasn’t a rape scene at all. Never was. Never scripted as rape (I read that bit later); wasn’t shot as rape; wasn’t edited as rape. I saw the uncut footage when I came back from Edinburgh and it simply wasn’t rape.

But, bizarrely, journalists often believe what they read in tabloid newspapers, so this story about the vile rape scene in a hardcore porn movie (which is wasn’t) quickly spread across the world, sometimes using the same words the original News of the World had used.

The movie, which had only just started shooting and which was months away from being edited, was reviled as “violent porn” by The Times of India, a “vile and degrading movie” on Australia’s Perth Now website and “violent, aggressive… icky stuff” by TheHollyoodGossip.com. Back home, totally unseen, the Daily Mirror slammed it as “a sick movie” with “vile scenes…stomach churning”

Fair enough. Good publicity for a small film, though sadly much too early to profit from.

Two weeks later, The People ran a new cover story and two-page spread about how Alex Reid had “returned” to the Killer Bitch set “to shoot more torrid outdoor sex shots”. This had never happened. It was a complete fiction. But The People had detailed descriptions, actual photos from this supposed second sex scene (they were re-cycled from the original scene) and they even had a direct quote from the director saying, “I can confirm that Alex filmed these scenes within the last seven days”.

The director told me not only that The People had never talked to him about this alleged re-shoot but, at that point in time, he had never actually talked to anyone at the newspaper about the film ever.

Obviously, you expect to be mis-quoted and have your words twisted by newspapers. Now, it seems, it’s common to simply make up entirely fictional stories.

The New York Daily News correctly reported that “the film’s producers don’t seem bothered by the publicity.”

Fair enough. Publicity is publicity.

But just as the Stephen Lawrence affair, to my mind, was not about racism but about police corruption – an investigating policeman was paid-off by the father of one of the accused – the current News of the World scandal is not about phone hacking but about endemic police corruption.

Two days ago, I saw a Sky News double interview with, on the one hand, Brian Paddick, former Deputy Assistant Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, and on the other ex News of the World journalist Paul McMullan.

McMullan could be seen almost literally biting his tongue off after he said that, if you were investigating police corruption, the only way to find out the facts was to talk to other policemen. As they might lose their jobs by dishing the dirt on fellow officers, they could not be expected to do this for free or for a few pounds and it was not unreasonable to pay them £20,000 or £30,000.

This figure was picked up by the interviewer.

Brian Paddick, who was basically defending the Met, said this was terrible but “clearly everyone has their price”.

This is an interesting thing to say because it is an acceptance by a former senior Met officer that, if the price is high enough, any Metropolitan policeman can be bought.

Yesterday’s London Evening Standard led on a story that “Corrupt Met police received more than £100,000 in unlawful payments from senior journalists and executives at the News of the World.

It also claimed that two senior Scotland Yard detectives investigating the phone hacking scandal held back: “Assistant Commissioners Andy Hayman and John Yates were both scared the News of the World would expose them for allegedly cheating on their wives if they asked difficult questions of the Sunday tabloid.”

Today’s Guardian says: “Some police sources suggested there was no evidence yet that officers had actually received the payments and what would also be investigated was whether the journalists involved had kept the money themselves.”

Obviously some Met officer here, limbering up for a career as a stand-up comic.

Police in the UK taking bribes? Shock! horror! – And the Pope is a Catholic?

The system-wide corruption within the Metropolitan Police in the 1960s was supposedly partially cleaned-up.

Bollocks.

On 4th December 1997, former Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Paul Condon gave evidence to the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee and said there were around 100-250 corrupt officers in the Met. By “corrupt” he meant seriously corrupt – they dealt drugs, helped arrange armed robberies etc.

Condon is also the man who coined the phrase “noble cause corruption” – the idea that some police justifiably ‘bend the rules’ to get a conviction when officers ‘know’ the accused is guilty but do not have enough proof to convict. So it could be seen by some as “noble” to plant evidence, lie under oath and generally ‘fit up’ any ‘known villains’ when there is no actual evidence which would prove their guilt.

In Stoke Newington the police did, indeed, ‘fit up’ guilty drug dealers who would not otherwise have been imprisoned. But their motive was not to ‘clean up’ the area but to clear away the opposition as police officers were themselves dealing hard drugs. Whether this comes within Sir Paul Condon’s definition of “noble cause corruption” I am not sure.

In 1998, the Telegraph got hold of (and one wonders how) a confidential document containing the minutes of a meeting organised by the National Criminal Intelligence Service (NCIS). It quoted this police document as saying: “corrupt officers exist throughout the UK police service… Corruption may have reached ‘Level 2’, the situation which occurs in some third world countries.”

I once asked someone who had managed a ‘massage parlour’ – in other words, a brothel – how he had avoided getting raided by the police. He looked at me as if I was mad:

“Cos we fucking paid the Old Bill and gave them free services,” he said.

In Britain today, it remains a fact of life – as it always has been throughout my life – that you always have to pay The Bill.

Last night’s TV news shows reported that today the police would arrest former News of the World editor Andy Coulson. Now where would they have got that story from? Only the police would know. And today he was arrested.

Was the tip-off paid-for or was it just a nudge-nudge case of You do me a favour; I’ll do you a favour?

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The death of a UK boxer linked to the sadistic murders of prostitutes by serial killer ‘Jack the Stripper’

I missed the 2008 movie The Bank Job when it was released in cinemas, but saw it on TV last night. It is about the 1971 robbery of the safety deposit vault at Lloyds Bank in Baker Street, London, and is allegedly based on a true story that one of the safety deposit boxes contained sex pictures of Princess Margaret (who is oddly never named in the film). Whether it is true or not I have no idea.

But the combination of seeing The Bank Job last night and the sad death of boxer Sir Henry Cooper yesterday reminds me of the story about British boxer Freddie Mills which I have heard for the last fifteen years from unconnected people in both the boxing and crime worlds.

The story is that Freddie Mills, a former World Light Heavyweight boxing champion who appeared in two Carry On films and many TV entertainment shows – he was the Frank Bruno of his day – was also a serial killer nicknamed Jack The Stripper who murdered six or possibly eight prostitutes between 1959 and 1965.

A 1969 novel Goodbye Piccadilly, Farewell Leicester Square was loosely based on the case and Alfred Hitchcock’s 1972 movie Frenzy was loosely adapted from the book.

On 24 July 1965 Freddie Mills was found shot through the right eye in his Citroen car, parked in a cul-de-sac behind his nightclub The Nite Spot in Charing Cross Road, London. He was said to have shot himself inside the car with a .22 fairground rifle borrowed from a friend who ran a shooting gallery. The Coroner’s Court brought in a verdict of suicide. His family never accepted the verdict.

In 1991, Tony Van Den Bergh published Who Killed Freddie Mills? which brought up the Jack the Stripper story.

In 2001, former London crime figure Jimmy Tippett Jnr was reportedly writing a book which claimed Freddie Mills was Jack the Stripper and killed himself because the police were likely to arrest him.

In his 2004 book Fighters, James Morton concluded that Freddie Mills had killed himself because he was depressed and was convinced the Kray Twins were about to kill him.

In 2006, David Seabrook published Jack of Jumps which deduced that Freddie Mills was not Jack the Stripper.

The story I heard in the mid-1990s and over the years from multiple separate sources was that Freddie Mills was Jack the Stripper and – because the worlds of crime and boxing are inextricably intermingled in the UK and there is a crossover between crime and showbiz in Soho – he was known by crime figures to be the killer. It was said that, at the point of sexual climax, he was known to lose control of his violent inner self.

The police did not have enough evidence to arrest him, so those crime figures killed Freddie Mills. The police knew or suspected this was the case but, because of the Jack the Stripper background, did not pursue any investigation; they figured justice had been done. As the Coroner’s Court had decided the death was suicide, there was no need to investigate.

In 1999, I had a chat with Brian J Ford, first British President of the European Union of Science Journalists’ Associations, specifically to ask him about the Freddie Mills ’suicide’ story. Shortly after Freddie Mills’ death in 1965, he had written an article for the Sunday Mirror, pointing out the complete lack of any psychological profile for a suicide.

In a 1965 interview with ITN, boxing promoter Jack Solomons said of Freddie Mills: “He would never accept defeat… I would assume that he had no enemies in the boxing game – what he did outside of that in his after boxing life, that I couldn’t say.”

One very unusual detail in this alleged ‘suicide’ was that Mills had his right eye open when the bullet hit it. Usually, people close their eyes as the trigger is pulled.

Professor David Wingate, resident medical officer at Middlesex Hospital the night Mills’s corpse was brought in, carried out an examination on the body and was convinced that someone had taken the gun off Mills and shot him with it. He was not called to give evidence at the Coroner’s inquest.

Brian J Ford told me he had also looked in detail at the alleged ‘suicide’ weapon and concluded that it was physically impossible for Freddie Mills to shoot himself seated in the back of that type of Citroen in the way that he was shot with a gun which was too long to manipulate through 180 degrees. There were also signs of a violent struggle before the alleged ‘suicide’ took place in the back seat. Brian did not go for the Jack The Stripper angle and just believed Mills, as a boxer, was involved with criminal types who shot him for unknown reasons.

But the story refuses to go away.

I heard it again last year.

It may be an urban myth.

It may be the truth.

That’s the ironic thing about the real world. You can never be absolutely certain what’s true and what’s not.

There is a BBC TV documentary about Freddie Mills here on YouTube in which Scotland Yard’s ‘Nipper’ Read, who investigated the case, says he believes Freddie Mills killed himself, but Mills’ family still dispute the ’suicide’ verdict; towards the end, there is also a reconstruction of how not to shoot yourself in the head with a fairground rifle in the back seat of a Citroen.

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Variety is not dead in Britain – not with the Royal wedding of William and Kate AND Pull The Other One

I saw a repeat of The Story of Variety with Michael Grade on BBC TV recently. The argument was that variety is dead. Michael Grade (unusually) was wrong. Two things yesterday proved this to me: the Royal Wedding and a monthly Pull The Other One comedy show in Peckham, home of Only Fools and Horses – no connection with the Royal Wedding.

At school, I took British Constitution for ‘A’ Level so i am a very strong supporter of the institution of a constitutional monarchy, but I have absolutely no interest at all in the soap opera of the Royal Family. If left to my own devices yesterday, I might have switched on BBC1 to see the RAF fly-past at the Royal Wedding and perhaps I would have watched the drive back from Westminster Abbey to Buckingham Palace in case anyone got assassinated.

As it was, I was with a friend who is a feminist republican. (Note, if you are an American reader, a republican is almost the opposite of what you might think: more left wing than right wing).

Of course, like almost all British republicans, she is obsessed with reading about and watching the Royals and following the soap opera and I had to sit through the whole thing on TV.

We had recently sat through Lindsay Anderson’s surreal movie If…. together and yesterday, when it got to the marriage bit where camp-looking churchmen in kitsch golden dresses were intoning sleep-inducing words and the congregation was awash with politicians, Royals, the upper classes and Elton John, I half expected Malcolm McDowell to appear high up in the Abbey among the gargoyles desperately firing an AK-47 at the congregation who would flood out the doors of the Abbey into Parliament Square where mortar bombs would explode.

Perhaps my mind wandered a little.

But men intoning the word of God in funny costumes always stimulates the surreal nodes in my brain.

My friend did make the interesting point that, apart from Kate Middleton, the colourful service was an entirely male affair apart from two nuns sitting to one side dressed in drab grey among the men in bright colours and the presumably-repeatedly-buggered choirboys in white surplices. It looked to me like the two nuns had been hired from Central Casting. One was unnecessarily tall and the other was unnecessarily small. It was like watching that classic comedy sketch where John Cleese is upper class and Ronnie Corbett is working class.

I am Sister Superior; I am taller than her and nearer to God… and I am Sister Inferior; I know my place.

Even when they sat down, the tall one was twice the height as the small one – that never normally happens. I began to fantasise about special effects and trapdoors in the pews.

The real pisser for me, though, was that the BBC TV director managed to miss the shot of the Lancaster, Spitfire and Hurricane flying down the length of The Mall. That was the only reason I was watching the thing – other than the possibility of visually interesting assassinations – and it was almost as bad as ITN missing the Royal Kiss on the balcony when Charles married Di.

Everything else was so impeccably stage-managed, I couldn’t understand why they missed the shot. I particularly loved the trees and random greenery inside Westminster Abbey though I found the chandeliers distracting. I don’t remember chandeliers inside the Abbey. Did they come with the trees as part of a special offer from B&Q?

The Royal Wedding guests included Elton John, an invisible Posh & Becks and the distractingly visible two nuns.

In the evening, I went to the monthly Pull The Other One comedy show in Peckham, which similarly attracts performers who come along to see the show but not to participate. This month it was writer Mark Kelly, actor Stephen Frost and surreal performer Chris Lynam. As I have said before, you know it is a good venue if other performers come to see the shows.

Pull The Other One is not a normal comedy show in that its performers are almost entirely speciality acts not stand-up comedians. If you need a break from reality, I recommend Pull The Other One as a good place to go. And the compering is usually as odd as the acts.

With Vivienne Soan on tour in Holland, the always energetic Holly Burn – the Miss Marmite of Comedy as I like to think of her – compered with Charmian Hughes and the latter performed an Egyptian sand dance in honour of the Royal wedding. Don’t ask, I don’t know, but it was very funny.

Martin Soan, Holly Burn and massed wind-up puppets performed Riverdance.

The extraordinarily larger-than-life Bob Slayer surprisingly did balloon modelling and unsurprisingly drank a pint of beer in one gulp.

Juggler Mat Ricardo (to be seen at the Edinburgh Fringe this August in the Malcolm Hardee Awards Show) still has some of the best spesh act patter around.

Magician David Don’t – who had variable success last month when he used blind-folded members of the audience throwing darts at each other – unusually succeeded in an escapology act involving a giant Royal Mail bag, although it’s the last time I want to see a banker with no clothes on and a Union flag coming out of his groin.

Earl Okin did wonderful musical things with his mouth.

And, to round off the evening Matthew Robins, with ukulele and accordion accompaniment, performed a shadow puppet story about murder and mutilation and a visit to the zoo. It is rare to see a shadow puppet show about someone getting his fingers cut off with pliers, his sister hanging from a rope and the audience spontaneously singing along to “I wanted you to love me, but a snake bit my hand…”

But it is more interesting than watching the Archbishop of Canterbury with his grey wild-man-of-the-desert hair wearing a gold dress and a funny pointy party hat in Westminster Abbey.

Pull the Other One – on the last Friday of every month – is never ever predictable and Stephen Frost, keen to appear, lamented to me the fact it is fully booked with performers until November.

Most interesting line of the evening – of the whole day, in fact – came from Earl Okin, who pointed out what a historic Wedding Day this was…

Because it was exactly 66 years ago to the day when Adolf Hitler married Eva Braun.

“It doesn’t bode well,” Earl said.

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