Category Archives: Press

Balancing left and right

Channel4

The Labour leadership election appears to have got the UK press and broadcasting media in a real tizz.

One of the most aggravating aspects of the reporting is the constant appendage of ‘left-wing’ to any reference to Jeremy Corbyn. He is the ‘left-wing MP’ who is challenging for the party leadership. Strangely though, the other candidates, who all oppose him, some quite vehemently, are not described as ‘right-wing’. In the interests of ‘balance’ the BBC and other public service broadcasters, including Channel 4 and ITV, should treat all the candidates equally, so why this kind of labelling?

For overseas readers I should point out that the Labour Party is supposedly a socialist party and should have left-wing policies. The right-wing of the Labour Party has attempted to redefine the party as ‘centrist’ and thus demonises any one identified as ‘leftist’. Presumably the BBC has bought this as well as the Guardian and the Independent, both newspapers priding themselves on more objective reporting. Interestingly, the Independent recently produced a list of nine policies/positions espoused by Corbyn which have been supported by the majority of voters polled in a recent survey. Perhaps then the new ‘centre ground’ is on the left?

Defining the other

The 10th anniversary of the ‘7/7 bombings’ in 2005 in London saw a range of remembrance events across the UK. These resulted in a great deal of media coverage. One BBC radio reporter referred to the four young bombers and described one of them like this:

He played cricket and worked in a fish and chip shop.

As I listened to this it occurred to me how easy it is to make observations like this and for them to offer listeners completely different meanings. The reporter perhaps intended his comment to underline the fact that these were ‘homegrown terrorists’. However, when I heard the line in the context of the overall report it was the opposite meaning that I took from it – as if the reporter subconsciously assumed that the four young men were clearly ‘other’ – not like ‘us’. The line is then a statement of surprise. They are terrorists. but they can serve up chips!

The language of media reports is often so ‘naturalised’ through repetition that we fail to spot how easily commentators slip into usages that we should question. So, trade unions ‘threaten’ strikes but employers ‘let workers go’. Some members of the Labour Party are always described as ‘left-wing’ (e.g. Jeremy Corbyn) whereas right-wing Labour MPs are more acceptable so their political position is not mentioned. In the UK, groups of people are described as ‘Asians’ but rarely as ‘white men’. Less dramatically, reporters often mention the ages of people or their status as a ‘mother of three’ or ‘father of two’ – even when this information adds nothing to the story.

Of course, sometimes using the most appropriate term is very important. International news media have been struggling for over a year to decide how to describe the various groups who have established themselves in Syria and Iraq, occupying territory and claiming to have set up a ‘caliphate’ (the historical term for the pan-Arab region in pre-Ottoman times). If they are called ‘Islamic State’ it conveys a certain legitimacy on them – as does either of the acronyms ‘ISIS’ or ‘ISIL’ (Islamic state in Syria’ or ‘Islamic state in the Levant’). The Levant is the term that was used in French colonial times to describe that part of the Ottoman Empire that became Syria and Lebanon. A solution may be to use the term ‘Daesh’ which stands for “al-Dawla al-Islamiya fil Iraq wa’al Sham“. Although this is more or less the same description, in Arabic it has different possible meanings and it is argued that Arab speakers are immediately aware that using this term is an insult, a belittling of a group who want to claim legitimacy.

There has been pressure on MPs in the UK and government spokespersons to use ‘Daesh’ in official statements (see the SNP MP Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh writing in the i on 6 July 2015). The Conservative MP Chris Grayling has called for the BBC to use ‘Daesh’, comparing this to wartime use of the term ‘Nazi’ when he argues that the BBC dropped the notion of ‘impartiality’. This looks like a case of another stick with which to beat the BBC (current Conservative policy) but it does illustrate the importance of specific language in reporting events.

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.

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.

Olympics in the age of corporatism

The industrial revolution arrives in the UK in an Olympics Opening Ceremony depicting Milton’s Pandæmonium. (Image from UK Government collection accessible on flickr.)

So, who watched the Olympic opening ceremony? According to the BBC the UK audience was 27 million and the global audience was ‘guesstimated’ to be anything from 1 to 4 billion. All these figures are notional of course – I suspect that the actual number of viewers for the full four hours was a lot less. The ceremony itself was interesting I think for two reasons. The first was the way in which it engaged with national typing – both in the selection of  ‘British’ images and, to a lesser extent, the ‘self-typing’ of the various national sporting bodies that selected the outfits their athletes would wear. The second aspect was the sense of fun that Danny Boyle and his team injected into the whole thing and how much it helped to shift the emphasis away from the horrible corporatism of the whole event. The politics of the opening event are well-covered in Anthony Barnett’s impressive essay on the Open Democracy website. He says most of what I would want to say about how the opening ceremony undercut the corporate capitalist imagery of the rest of the games. I’d only add that in all the praise for Danny Boyle, it’s worth pointing out that one of his most astute decisions was to invite Frank Cottrell Boyce on board as the show’s writer. I’m sure that those children on NHS beds were a product of collaboration between Danny and Frank.

After a week of watching snippets of coverage from many of the different Olympics events, my overall feeling is that the enthusiasm of the support and the performances of the athletes has so far managed to lift the games above the negativity many of us felt given the corporate nature of the event. The branding requirements of the official sponsors is one of the worst crimes but it was at least some relief to learn that campaigns to shame corporations like McDonalds and Coca Cola into foregoing some of the tax breaks they might have exploited as part of their sponsorship.

We’ve used the Olympic Games as a case study for various media studies topics in previous editions of The Media Student’s Book. It’s almost as if each games signals a new development in media use. The London Games is smaller in scale than those of Beijing, but arguably bigger in terms of media coverage. Here are a few observations that media teachers might follow up:

Too much coverage?: How do media outlets balance the games coverage with other news and entertainment material over the fortnight? The BBC has coverage on four TV channels plus three radio channels – and its website. Place the front page of the Guardian next to the front page of its Olympics Sports Supplement and each day the same or similar full page images mean that you have to look carefully to distinguish which is which. Civil war in Syria? – you need to look carefully inside.

News/sport commentators – are they the same?: The BBC got a bloody nose over the Jubilee coverage because it was deemed to have used ‘entertainment’ presenters without the knowledge or skills to deal with outside broadcast events. The Olympics coverage has meant some ‘news’ journalists fronting sports programmes and some sports journalists appearing on breakfast TV in ‘news/current affairs’ slots.  So far this seems to have worked out very well. I’d pick out four women who are having a great games. Hazel Irvine is an Olympics veteran and the ultimate professional sports journalist. Breakfast TV improved immensely when she co-hosted this week. Gabby Logan and Clare Balding have nothing to prove as presenter/interviewers and it’s time that they permanently replaced some of the less dynamic male sports presenters (on Match of the Day for a start). The real surprise for me has been to see one of the BBC’s top newsreaders Mishal Husain doing a very good job fronting sports coverage.

Fans – how far can they go?: The corporate nature of the Olympics extends over a wide range of issues. One concerns the relationships between fans and athletes. Bringing professionals earning millions into the Olympics in sports like tennis, football and basketball inevitably brings with it the scandals and celebrity gossip attached to millionaire players. At the same time, prominent track athletes and cyclists are now celebrity figures in the UK are now sponsored and their image is exploited in advertising contracts. However, the Olympics also implies a more personal relationship between athletes and fans and a sense that “they are doing it for us” or “for our country”.

Twitter is one of the relatively recent innovations in Olympics coverage and it features heavily in in commentary and interviews with athletes. Does this improve coverage? Perhaps, but the Twitter bullying of some athletes is unacceptable. Most of the victims in British sports this year have been millionaire footballers who perhaps bring it on themselves, but others (Fabrice Muamba?) deserve protection. Diver Tom Daley has a celebrity profile – does he deserve abuse?

Facebook and Twitter are distractions for athletes – one Australian swimmer has blamed her lack of concentration and focus on ‘over-indulgence’ in social media. How much privacy should athletes have – and how much attention should they pay to the fans who have paid so much to see them? This is the basis for the media story about the swimmers with their headphones who block out the noise of the crowd with their own choice of hip-hop or other music. A sensible aid to focus, an insult to the fans or simply a function of the modern corporate games?

British athlete Maureen Gardner at the 1948 Olympics in London – in the era before corporatism and designer kit. From a collection of photos from the Daily Herald Archive, held at the National Media Museum and accessible on flickr

Is the UK media ‘out of balance’?

Steve Bell’s jubilee mug – restoring balance in the UK’s media landscape?

Three issues converge in the UK over the next few weeks and together they raise questions about the partiality of UK media. One of them, the Leveson Inquiry has been running since November 2011. Why haven’t we commented on its recent findings? Partly, I think it’s because from my point of view I don’t want to cheer about the fall of Murdoch until I’m convinced that he has actually lost any of his power. But this last week has raised questions about the attempt at balance operated by the BBC – which is required to be impartial as part of its charter.

The Leveson Inquiry this week interviewed Tony Blair and explored his relationship with Murdoch. Blair’s position  has always been that it was important to have Murdoch ‘on side’ because that was the only way of trying to shift the built-in bias of the UK press against Labour. Polly Toynbee in the Guardian commenting on Blair’s performance agreed that the UK has by European standards a completely unbalanced press with 80% of circulation controlled by right-wing proprietors and editorial staff. Whether this excuses Blair’s strategy is another matter.

The press of course is not required to be impartial – but public service broadcasters in the UK certainly are. On this score, Leveson has also been important. Its exposure of phone-hacking by Murdoch’s News International has implicated the current Conservative-led government in a cosy relationship with Murdoch on several levels. Earlier this week the right-wing political blogger ‘Guido Fawkes’ posted a video which shows an off-air argument between a Tory spin doctor and a BBC reporter. Fawkes (aka Paul Staines) presumably thinks that the interview shows the BBC to have a left-wing bias since the reporter, Norman Smith is being asked to defend his reports on Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt which suggest that the minister has got questions to answer about his support for Murdoch during the attempted purchase of the rest of BSkyB. (Hunt was supposed to be responsible for overseeing this process ‘in the public interest’.) Perhaps Staines was just being mischievous in posting this? However, it has attracted the usual wave of comments about the ‘left-wing bias’ of the BBC so perhaps it has worked for him?

We don’t necessarily want to promote Guido Fawkes but you can find his stuff for yourself if you want. Wikipedia offers a background on his blog.

While all of this is going on, the UK media is preparing for two public celebrations. The first this weekend is the Diamond Jubilee – 60 years since the accession to the throne of Elizabeth Windsor as constitutional monarch. According to various polls around 30-40% of the UK population is Republican yet you would be hard-pressed to recognise that from the media coverage. Certainly there is far less coverage of opposition to the scale of the celebration than there was in 1977 when the ‘Silver Jubilee’ took place. Those who are not interested in street parties and flag-waving may be keeping a lower profile. Is that because the presence of so many millionaires in Cameron’s cabinet (Hunt is one of them) indicates an increased deference for wealth and aristocracy? It seems unlikely.

The third challenge to balance comes with the Olympics. The issue here seems to be the attempt to convince everyone in the UK that the games held in London are a national event and part of that is the coverage of the torch relay around the country. Balance in news reporting isn’t just about ‘left’ and ‘right’ – it should also be about the mix of news items. I felt that the coverage on flying the torch to the UK from Greece was probably over the top, but I’m interested now in the stories emerging about the progress of the torch around the country. Particularly interesting are the complaints that not enough local people are involved as torchbearers. The UK media has tended to become ever more metropolitan-focused and reporting of events outside the M25 (the orbital motorway around London) is often not necessarily ‘un-balanced’ but just generally uninformed. On the other hand, we do expect to receive far too many stories about travel chaos in the capital. We all pay the same BBC licence fee and the papers cost the same wherever you live!

Before the Olympics comes the European Football Championship. Perhaps because England aren’t thought to be very good at the moment, the flag-waving has been muted so far. The latest coverage seems to have converged on stories about Ukraine as an unsuitable host nation. Since this is partly based on reports that Ukraine is a dangerous place for British Asian and African-Caribbean supporters, it will be interesting to see how some of the more xenophobic voices in the UK tabloid press handle the next few weeks.