Category Archives: Radio

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.

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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.

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

Gender and Content Analysis

Earlier this week Guardian columnist Kira Cochrane published some research she had organised counting the number of women who had by-lines in national newspapers or who appeared as presenters, panelists or interviewees on leading radio and TV news and current affairs programmes.Whether or not you would be surprised by her findings will probably depend on the extent to which you watch/listen/read to this kind of UK content. She found, of course, that women are severely under-represented.

Simple counting of representations like this is a traditional form of enquiry in media studies (see Chapter 1 Case Study on Visual and Aural Signs in MSB5, p39). It may be dismissed as basic by some but it demonstrates the advantages of quite simple ideas:

– easy to carry out

– provides empirical evidence

– the actual process might change some attitudes/make researchers more aware of the range (or similarity) of programming and writing

– the results are certainly likely to make some people think again about their own and others ‘ assumptions and rather loose anecdotal observations.

Do you ever ask yourself about how they select panels for quiz shows or discussion programmes? Are you aware of any disparities? Whatever our personal responses to a finding that 84% of reporters and guests on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme are male, Cochrane’s piece has stirred up a debate. The Letters page in the next day’s Guardian carried several responses. Lis Howell from City University reported on her own research into women booked to appear on The Today programme and on 5 Live Breakfast:

“Female contributors were then subdivided into two categories – “victims/case studies” and “experts/endorsers”. We found the Today programme had by far the fewest of either category on air, and 5 Live the most. But “victims” on 5 Live outnumbered “experts”, whereas the (very) few women who appeared on Today at least were given “expert” status. The full findings will be published soon in Broadcast magazine, but male experts generally outnumbered women experts five to one.”

Howell also refers to reports from female ‘bookers’ on these programmes, suggesting that they are charged with finding more women, but even though female experts are often available, many of them decline offers to appear. This observation was followed up again by Suzanne Moore today in a piece entitled “Why women don’t like appearing on TV” with an intro of “Many women – including me – are afraid of seeming unlovable and ignorant, even though men ooze such qualities in serious discussions.”

Predictably perhaps, Moore’s article has prompted many online comments, some silly, but others  quite perceptive. But will this interest in the issue help to change the situation? What does the research – and whatever other data exists out there say about broadcasting as an institution? (i.e. why is it so much worse in terms of gender balance than the press – which isn’t that great either?)