Getting the balance right

The local elections in England last week produced two examples of quandaries for broadcasters.

The big story for the BBC and other commentators was the rise of the UK Independence Party (UKIP), led by a curiously charismatic Nigel Farage. UKIP are a right-wing populist party promoting withdrawal from the European Union. In this respect they are related to similar parties in many other EU member countries. UKIP has no seats in the UK Parliament and is unlikely to gain many in 2015. Its main impact is as a ‘protest party’ for voters who feel increasingly disenfranchised by the major political parties. UKIP does have other ‘policies’, some of them favouring extreme solutions to UK problems, but these are rarely discussed.

The BBC (and the other UK-based news broadcasters) are constrained by public service broadcasting remits demanding impartiality and balance. This means they must try to give airtime to each of the major parties in an election campaign. As the number of parties expands this becomes more difficult. UKIP put up hundreds of candidates across the councils polling on May 22 and they couldn’t be ignored. Indeed they polled a significant number of votes and surprisingly won seats on councils where it had seemed very unlikely. The council elections took place on the same day as the European elections in which UKIP were forecast to be the most supported party (but which didn’t count the votes until May 25th). UKIP’s success is certainly a ‘story’ – and a big story. All news organisations must go after the big story.

But UKIP isn’t the only story. The Green Party in the UK has been growing steadily in terms of local councillors elected and it also has one MP in the UK Parliament (UKIP doesn’t as yet have any). The Greens won less seats than UKIP but overall they increased their vote more successfully. During the campaign and during the analysis of the results the Greens were barely mentioned whereas Farage and UKIP were the headline story. ‘Balance’ in this case is a judgement about the ‘news values’ of the story and the factual information available. On this occasion the BBC in particular were criticised for focusing too much on (and giving over too much airtime to) Nigel Farage and UKIP.

This was brought into sharp relief in an aside on BBC Radio 5 Live. A listener contacted the Drivetime programme on May 23rd and asked for more hard information about the poll results (including how the Greens were actually doing). The response was that there was too much information to broadcast and that the listener should go to the BBC website. But there are still many BBC licence fee payers  who do not have broadband and cannot access the web – and others who are driving during ‘Drivetime’ (4-7pm). Denying these listeners access to information is unfair. Again this is a question of balancing a remit to provide factual news and a need to find a ‘sexy’ story – the success of UKIP with its appeal to xenophobia and ability to win seats from the main parties. And again some would contend that the BBC got the balance wrong.

Welsh TV noir: Hinterland (UK 2013)

DCI Tom Mathias (Richard Harrington) with trademark frown

DCI Tom Mathias (Richard Harrington) with trademark frown

Hinterland is a good example of the global/local. Like some other modern states the UK has statutory requirements and cultural policies that protect the other languages in the Home Nations and this means support for both Welsh and Gaelic broadcasters and film and television production in those languages. Now that Cornish has been recognised as a ‘European identity’ perhaps this provision will be expanded in future?

Hinterland is arguably the biggest Welsh-language production for some time, with a budget of £4.2 million to cover four 90 minutes TV crime fiction films (described as a ‘mini-series’ in the US). Commissioned by BBC Wales and S4C (the Welsh language public service channel set up at the same time as Channel 4 but with its own independent broadcasting authority to oversee operations) and made by the Fiction Factory in Cardiff the films are an example of ‘multiple versions’ production. Dating back to the coming of sound in the film industry this form of production sees two or more language versions of the same script made in parallel. In this case there is an all Welsh version as shown on S4C and a version mainly in English but with some (subtitled) Welsh dialogue that has just been seen on BBC4.

Conceived from the outset in terms of ‘local authenticity’ being a major selling point, the films have been sold to the Danish broadcaster DR (producer of The Killing and Borgen) and are under offer worldwide through the distributor All3Media International which operates throughout the anglophone media market covering Australasia and North America as well as the UK and parts of Europe. The first four films have been so successful that a second set of five have been commissioned and production is expected to start in September 2014.

Welsh noir

Ever since the success of The Killing and Wallander on UK/US TV it has been a commonplace to describe all kinds of police procedural/crime fiction television as ‘noir‘ and to make comparisons with ‘Nordic noir‘. In many cases this is not particularly helpful but Hinterland, while remaining resolutely ‘Welsh’, does have some similarities with the Swedish and Danish filmed dramas and perhaps even more with the less familiar Icelandic noir.

Perhaps the most distinctive noirish aspect of Hinterland is its use of landscape and the sense of isolation. The title refers to the area covered by the stories – roughly a 30 mile radius from the seaside town of Aberystwyth. This ranges from the  valleys of the Ystwyth and a second river the Rheidol (which both reach the sea in the Aberystwyth area) to the mountains of Mid Wales and the coastal strip. The whole area is underpopulated by UK standards: the local population in Aber is no more than 20,000 even counting the large number of university students and the whole county of Ceredigion has only 75,000. Aberystwyth is arguably the most isolated town in Wales and England – some 70-80 miles from the nearest large towns Shrewsbury, Wrexham or Swansea.

The central character in the films is DCI Mathias who appears to have been ‘exiled’ in Aberystwyth. He lives on his own in a caravan but has a wife and children in London – this back story is not filled out. He acts as if he is on his own, distant from the rest of his team. It is noticeable that in the subtitled version of the films he is the only police officer who doesn’t speak Welsh. Ceredigion is one of the parts of Wales where Welsh is the first language of up to half the population.

The physical isolation is enhanced by the climate and geomorphology. It takes time to get anywhere by car/truck on winding roads over hills and moors. The rail service is limited. It rains a lot. Added to this is the sense of the past which bears down on the present. There is an almost mythical celtic past and a more recent past of mineral extraction/mining that has left a legacy of abandoned quarries and mines. Agriculture, partly on struggling hill farms, forestry and tourism form the economic base of the region. The first three stories are set in an isolated children’s home, a hill farm and an abandoned quarry.

I’ve seen comparisons being made to the Swedish TV series Wallander, but this is a much more isolated and rugged area than Ystad in Southern Sweden. The Iceland of the stories by Arnaldur Indriðason seems the best comparison as it is his books that are best known in English translation and one of them has been adapted for a successful international film, Myrin (Jar City, Iceland/Ger/Den 2006). The comparison throws up one interesting question. Jar City is a ‘national’ story in a country with a capital city but other wise sparsely populated. Ceredigion is similarly ‘dominated’ by Aberystwyth but so far none of the stories in Hinterland have had any sense of a national Welsh dimension – even though in cultural terms, Aberystwyth is a national centre housing the National Library of Wales. The University in Aberystwyth has also been largely absent though it plays a major role in the town.

One of the features of isolation is that a local police officer is less likely to be bothered by  interference from senior officers based 100 miles away. However, in Hinterland there is a local police chief who seems to be the most underwritten character – and so far has proved to be simply an irritating presence, generally unsupportive and unsympathetic. Perhaps he will figure more in the future? The other ‘difference’ in this set of films is that there is no sense of ‘social space’ for the police team – no bar where they meet. In fact there have been few social places for anyone to meet. The narrative seems to comprise swift journeys into the hills to visit isolated crime scenes  and then interrogations back in Aber. Somehow, the usual array of SOCO photographers and local constabulary to tape off the area materialise in the wilderness. Where do they come from? Hinterland looks and feels different to most urban-set dramas. Perhaps that is an attractive feature for overseas buyers?

The ethics of ‘the grabber image’

The image on the front page of the Mirror.

The image on the front page of the Mirror.

An interesting ethical question for media students today. The Mirror, the only UK newspaper to always support the Labour Party has been at the centre of a public debate about the ethics of image use. Its front-page story was about the large number of UK families who had to use food banks because they haven’t enough income to be able to shop in supermarkets. To illustrate the story the Mirror picture desk selected a ‘stock image’, paying a reproduction fee to Getty Images. The photograph was actually taken by an American photographer in 2009 and depicted her small daughter who was crying after she lost a worm that she was ‘looking after’. Her mother sold the rights to Getty for commercial exploitation and the original is posted on Lauren Rosenbaum’s flickr site.

The incident raises several questions/issues but first it’s important to understand the political context. The UK government is keen to exploit its latest announcement about the UK economy with low inflation, lower unemployment etc. The Mirror wants to spoil this story by reminding us that UK residents should be ashamed of living in a rich country in which inequalities are increasing and in which food banks are now essential to feed the poor. To give its story more impact it has used an image which grabs attention and wrings emotion from the reader. The objections towards the use of the image come mainly from right-wing commentators who want everyone to know that the image is not ‘authentic’.

BBC Radio 5 organised a debate on the topic and invited two speakers, a Professor of Journalism and an ex-Deputy Editor of the Mirror. The Professor was not very helpful in my view but the ex-editor summed up the situation well. He argued that the photo was a ‘grabber’ and that there was no problem in using the image symbolically rather than as a documentary/reportage image. He suggested that what the paper should have done is to include a caption with the image stating: ‘Picture posed by a model’ or ‘Stock photo supplied by Getty’ etc. In failing to do this, the Mirror laid itself open to the accusation of ‘misleading its readers’. As he suggested later on, any analysis of this controversy should also bear in mind that to print a photo of a genuine child in distress because of hunger might be seen as exploiting those who are suffering in this way. There is nothing wrong with using a stock image, but it should be signified as such.

Two other points to remember. 1. The Mirror was found guilty two days running by the Press Gazette. The previous day it had used an image of a giant rat in a story about Liverpool, but the image actually belonged to a story published in a London local paper last year. The Mirror claimed that it had been deceived but this seems to be another case of poor ‘fact-checking’ – something US newspapers are very conscious of but which the UK press is seemingly less interested in. 2. The Mirror is a tabloid newspaper and at one time the most successful tabloid paper in the UK. It was overtaken by the Sun and the Mail – two right-wing papers which have done much to lower the quality threshold of the UK press. The Mirror, for all its faults, is best when it gets back to its previous role in dealing in real stories presented for a popular audience. The scandal about the new poor, victims of current UK government policy, is a real story.

The BBC and its Tory critics

cruel-sea-poster

One of the most vociferous critics of the BBC is the Daily Mail columnist Simon Heffer. He has routinely attacked the public service broadcaster for its ‘lefty bias’ and he’d like to see it emasculated. He presents his general view in this column written for the Telegraph. To be fair to Heffer, his is a fiercely independent voice rather than a mouthpiece for the Conservative Party, but even so it is strange to see so partisan a commentator given what is effectively carte blanche on BBC4 (a channel he would like to see closed down) to explain his own take on a specific issue about British film culture in ‘Fifties British War Films: Days of Glory‘.

BBC4 specialises in documentaries of various kinds, often using archive film materials and sometimes, as in this case, introducing a season of films. Heffers’ programme, which he wrote himself, follows a familiar pattern with ‘straight to camera’ presentation by the man himself plus clips from the films he wants to discuss and interviews with actors, directors and experts. The experts here are Peter Hennessy, well-known historian of post-war Britain, and Matthew Sweet who has built a reputation through books and TV programmes like this as a popular film historian. They provide useful observations on Britain and British films in the 1950s but neither of them engage with the central question of how representations of national identity might work in a specific film culture. There are in fact no alternative voices to challenge Heffer’s own simplistic notions.

Heffer has just one strategy to nullify criticism. He mentions the critics of the 1950s war films and then simply re-asserts his own position without actually engaging in debate. Then he moves on. In the Independent today, TV critic Tom Sutcliffe suggests that the programme was most enjoyable because it was so amusing – and that this was all down to Heffer’s presentation. Sutcliffe suggests that it isn’t subtle but “I suspect that Heffer may think that subtlety is subversively un-British in itself”. It’s true that it was amusing in this uncomfortable way, but that doesn’t make up for the lamentable analysis. It’s unlikely that BBC4 will broadcast a more carefully prepared analytical essay about British national identity as represented in its war films – but it might be interesting to see an opposing ‘personal view’ of what representations of 1939-45 in British films might mean to British audiences.

Some of the films Heffer discusses are showing on BBC4 over the next few days. The films themselves are certainly worth watching. What Heffer doesn’t say is that there were other films that featured wartime narratives (and what happened to service personnel after they were demobbed) but that overall the numbers of war films have been over-emphasised in the histories of the period.

History, Media and Memory

Ginger (Elle Fanning) worries about the bomb with a family friend played by Annette Benning in ‘Ginger & Rosa’

Ginger & Rosa, the new film from British director Sally Potter is set at the time of the Cuban Missile crisis in 1962. Most people in their 60s today will remember the event – when the world came closest to the possibility of a nuclear war between the West and the Soviet Union. Whether there was a real possibility of war or whether this was just the most dramatic period in the game of brinkmanship between US President Kennedy and Soviet Chairman Kruschev, is something for historians to argue about, but in media terms this was one of the major global events of the period at a time when television in particular was beginning to become an important part of people’s lives, not just in the US and UK but all over the world.

BBC Radio 4 invited Rosie Boycott (born 1951), ex-editor of British newspapers and magazines and a ‘media personality’ in the UK, to review Ginger & Rosa. She remembered the Cuban missile crisis and she also referred to the Kennedy assassination. Kirsty Lang and Rosie Boycott both claimed that as children they had been terrified by the prospect of nuclear war. Boycott also said that she remembered being told about the Kennedy assassination at school. She went to Cheltenham Ladies College – I’m assuming as a boarder, in which case her story makes sense since Kennedy was shot around 6.30 pm UK time. My point here is that the telling of history has changed.

This ‘remembering of historical events’ has now become a modern media phenomenon. The beginnings of ‘live TV news’ was around this time with the Telstar satellites linking North America and Europe. The events of the mid 1960s such as the Six Day War in 1966, the Prague Spring in 1968 and then the war in Vietnam were media events on a scale and immediacy not seen before. ‘Memories’ became live or near live media memories.

But shared though these memories were as media events, the meanings weren’t necessarily equally shared. In her review of Ginger & Rosa, Boycott also asserts that the Sixties decade was a time when people became more selfish and more concerned with ‘self-expression’. This is a familiar observation, often a pejorative comment on social behaviour, but it’s also a very metropolitan statement, applying to a relatively small group of people in London. Elsewhere in the UK, the Sixties change in attitudes and behaviour was a much later phenomenon. Media coverage of major events and changes in social behaviour has been greatly extended since 1962 and media archives preserve a great deal of contemporary material. But how they relate to personal memories is still quite complex.

One twentysomething asking older audience members for Ginger & Rosa about what it was like in schools in the UK in 1962, said “Did you have drills for nuclear attacks?”. Presumably he had seen those US newsreels and public information films about what to do if the missiles came. My memory tells me that we took little notice of the possibility of nuclear destruction – perhaps I’ve repressed that memory? The UK government followed British practice and compiled advice on what to do in the event of a nuclear attack but intended to release propaganda only when an attack was imminent. Wikipedia has quite a good entry on the Protect and Survive materials eventually forced out for public scrutiny  in 1980 and immediately lampooned on TV and then in a more subtle way via a famous graphic novel When the Wind Blows (1982) by Raymond Briggs.

Storms and News Values

Clearing up the damage in Cuba (from the Guardian website)

The devastation caused by Hurricane Sandy in the North East US and especially in Manhattan has dominated UK TV and radio reports for the last 24 hours. It’s a big story and the people affected all need our support. For media students taking a ‘distanced’ view, however, the reporting also demonstrates some of the factors governing how news reports are constructed and how different events are given different priorities.

In each edition of the Media Student’s Book we have focused on ‘News Values’ and the Hurricane Sandy story displays virtually every one of the factors that will make it the No. 1 story in global news reports. So, for instance, it is predictable – the news agencies can track the storm, knowing that it is scheduled to reach  New York at a certain time. But it is also unusual because New York is not often in the path of the storm – hurricane stories in the US usually involve the South East. The story involves glamour and celebrities in danger. New York is a ‘known’ city, an important place where ‘important people’ live. The timing is also coincident with the US presidential election, so the story gets bigger by association with the election and with earlier stories such as George W. Bush and his poor handling of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The scale of the event is important (sometimes referred to by theorists as reaching the threshold of newsworthiness). Immediacy is another factor – we can see and hear the news live, since New York is also the main base for much of the US news media and foreign news agencies have offices there. Perhaps most of all, is the familiarity with iconic images of New York for audiences worldwide. Which news editor could resist images of New York landmarks under attack from violent storms?

And yet . . . Hurricane Sandy’s ‘attack’ on the Caribbean began several days ago with death and damage in Jamaica, followed by increasing death tolls in Cuba and Haiti and the destruction of crops in Cuba and temporary dwellings in Haiti where recovery from previous disasters (earthquake and disease) has not yet been completed. Why didn’t these events receive the same coverage? Many in the UK will have been on holiday in Cuba in the last few years, others will have family and friends in Jamaica. Aid agencies have been trying to remind us about the situation in Haiti. Shouldn’t the BBC have given equal coverage to the impact of Sandy in these countries – or are they not ‘glamorous’ enough? Clearly it is more difficult to obtain footage and there are not as many journalists immediately available to feed stories to global media, but there are interesting stories here too. Cuba is usually very well-prepared for hurricanes, but Sandy seems to have overwhelmed even the Cuban plans in and around the South Eastern city of Santiago de Cuba. Cuba’s fragile economic production outlook looks to be severely damaged by the impact on coffee and sugar crops. Trying to find information about this, it is interesting that the first source on Google’s news listing was the South African newspaper website Mail & Guardianwhich led with the storm in the US but included a section on the Caribbean.

Hallyu goes Anglo – Gangnam Style is UK’s No 1

It’s taken a long time, but the ‘Korean Wave’ or hallyu has finally reached the UK with Psy’s ‘Gangnam Style’ and his ‘horse dance’ officially recognised as the No 1 single in the UK. The hallyu began in the late 1990s with the successful export of South Korean TV shows to China and other East Asian territories. High quality programming, cheaper than US product and more attuned to local cultural trends, the TV programmes were followed by the spread of K-pop, a regional competitor for Cantopop and Mandopop in the Three Chinas and J-pop. Korean films have also been part of the hallyu.

Fans of visiting K-pop star Kim Jae-joong of the band JYJ in Turkey where hallyu is popular. Photo from Korea.net and Korean Culture Service taken in February 2012.

According to the 2012 IFPI Report on Digital Music, South Korea has risen from being the 33rd placed national music market in 2005 to the  11th in 2011. More significantly perhaps, 70% of K-pop revenues in South Korea come from digital sales – well above the international average. The success of a K-pop act in the UK and US marks K-pop’s recognition in the other two major international markets – Japan is the second biggest market and the hallyu arrived there with TV drama serials in the late 1990s. But alongside recognition in major markets, K-pop is also finding its way into many of the world’s smallest markets where there is little industry as such. You can find its influence across Asia, Africa and Latin America.