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.

Showing and studying the film Green

Just wanted to follow-up a post from last year about the wonderful ‘wildlife-as-you’ve-never-seen-it’ film Green, viewable at www.greenthefilm.com and screened recently on Al-Jazeera TV. The research project which led me to discover the film has produced a website which readers of this blog may find useful.

The Al Jazeera screenings led to this article and comments in the Daily Mail.

Good to see both the film being shown more widely, and the decision to circulate the article, and the responses to it, in the Mail.

Activists from SOCP (Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme) carry an injured orangutan away for medical treatment. The dedicated workers aim to save as many of the primates as they can during deforestation.

 

Those Who Kill – the Danes come to ITV

The murder squad with Katrine on the left and the chief, Bisgaard, in the front.

For readers outside the UK, ITV3 is the third digital channel for the main terrestrial UK broadcaster ITV. A quick glance at the BARB audience figures reveals that it is actually the sixth biggest UK TV channel, outgunning any of Sky’s channels or its sister stations ITV2 and ITV4. It achieves this by targeting ‘over 35s’ (and probably more women than men – ITV4 is ‘bloke TV’) and offering them re-runs of popular drama series. ITV chiefs have no doubt noticed the big success of Scandinavian drama series shown on BBC4 which have attracted record audiences of over 600,000 per episode. BBC4 is usually invisible to the tabloid press writers on TV but The Killing and Borgen have attracted a great deal of coverage in the broadsheets.

Now ITV3 have begun broadcasting Those Who Kill, their new Danish import, at 10pm on Thursday evenings. The big questions are: will the BBC4 audience migrate to ITV3 for their fix of ‘Nordic Noir’ and what will the existing ITV3 audience, fed on a diet of Wycliffe, Morse, Poirot etc. make of a show with murky lighting and subtitles? It’s probably thirty years or so since ITV stations (then regionally owned) put out European art films in late night slots. Can they make a success of it again?

On the basis of the first 90 minutes episode, Those Who Kill appears to be a more American-style crime series – or perhaps the grittier end of UK crime series such as Wire in the Blood. It has one of the tropes of the BBC4 Danish serials – the intelligent, fearless and strong-willed female lead. In Episode 1 Katrine (Laura Sofia Bach) takes the initiative in leading a police team investigating a serial killer of young women. She co-opts a profiler of ‘dissocial’ characters who has been previously used (and discarded) by the Copenhagen police and she has a close relationship with another young woman who is a forensic scientist. This trio solve their first case and despite his initial misgivings, the homicide chief (played by The Killing I‘s ‘Troells’, the actor Lars Mikkelsen) decides to promote Katrine. We also get to see at least two other actors from The Killing II and Borgen.

The four characters listed above (and a fifth junior police officer) are presumably going to be central in the series but so far we have learned only a little about their family backgrounds. I don’t get the impression that we are going to get the family melodrama offered by the serials nor their political narratives. The serial killer story is rather too familiar from US and UK series (even if, as we are often told, they are not in Scandinavia – though Jo Nesbø has just written one). This one was quite well done and was certainly grisly, but it didn’t have that usual Nordic Noir element of some kind of social comment on the collapse of social democracy or the impact of globalisation. It could easily have been a British or American story. Finally, there hasn’t been much sign of an overall serial narrative developing – a ‘story arc’ that will run through each episode. Still, this was the first episode. The big question is whether the audience will find the show on the schedules. The Guardian, home of blogs on The Killing and Borgen, doesn’t list ITV3 programmes, only trailed this show on the day of broadcast and hasn’t reviewed it so far.

What Rupert Did

I wrote this piece several months ago but didn’t post it. I offer it now as Rupert Murdoch returns to the UK to attempt to rescue the Sun.

It’s been a frabjous time watching the heads roll at News International only marred by the realisation that the Metropolitan Police have been so complicit in not pursuing the criminal activity before now. There is plenty out there on the investigation into phone hacking etc. so I want to go further back to explain why Murdoch is so hated by so many.

It all begins in 1969 when the Australian press entrepreneur Rupert Murdoch bought his second title in the UK, the Sun. During the 1950s and 1960s the overall political allegiance of the British press had gradually shifted to the right. The first big casualty  amongst the daily papers was the demise of the News Chronicle in 1960. This broadsheet mid-market paper was generally recognised as a supporter of the UK Liberal Party. It was bought by the right-wing Daily Mail group.

In 1964 the Daily Herald, which for more than 50 years had been an important broadsheet with a working-class readership, was rebranded as the Sun (still as a broadsheet). The Herald had been created by trade unionists in 1911 and the Trades Union Congress finally sold its 49% stake in the paper in 1960. But in the developing consumerist society of the 1960s advertisers began to drift away. (Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks radical makes this observation in a New Statesman article). The rebranding failed (it involved an orange-yellow masthead, an unusual design feature for a UK newspaper) and in 1969 IPC, which had acquired the title as part of its takeover of the Odhams Press in 1961, sold it to Murdoch. IPC still owned the Daily Mirror.

Murdoch had bought the News of the World a year earlier and he is quoted as saying that he was amazed at how easy it was to gain entry into the UK market. He quickly turned the Sun into a tabloid and began to ape the biggest selling newspaper of the period, the Daily Mirror. The Sun took many of the familiar features of the Mirror and trivialised or sensationalised them. At this time the Daily Mirror was both a ‘popular’ and a ‘serious’ newspaper. It was known for investigative reporting and its feature pages and columnists were highly respected. Murdoch’s paper, edited by a former and seemingly disgruntled Mirror employee Larry Lamb, gradually undermined its rival forcing the Mirror to respond in order to hold onto readers tempted away by the Sun‘s sex and sensationalism. One of the first charges against Murdoch was thus role he played in trivialising the tabloid press in the UK. Gradually the Mirror faltered, losing its radical edge and succumbing to the sensationalism of the Sun.

When he bought the Sun, Murdoch is said to have promised to keep the paper as a supporter of the Labour Party and to keep as many printing jobs as possible (i.e. more than the rival bidder for the title in 1969, the equally controversial Robert Maxwell – who would later buy what became the Mirror Group). The Sun did indeed keep supporting Labour during the general elections of 1971 and 1974 but its stance was unconvincing and by 1979 it was firmly behind Margaret Thatcher. Once Thatcher was in power, the true colours of the Murdoch Sun were revealed under the editorship of Kelvin McKenzie. It gloried in the killing of Argentinian sailors in the sinking of the Belgrano with the headline GOTCHA! and it attacked Labour politicians mercilessly. In 1986 Murdoch was ready to defy the print unions and move out of Fleet Street to a new press in Wapping literally locking out those (print workers and journalists) who didn’t want to make the move. The sheer hatred of Murdoch by significant portions of the UK reading public dates from this period in the early 1980s. The boycott of all Murdoch’s papers and also of Sky began at this point.

On the other hand, Murdoch’s supporters would argue that he broke the print unions and enabled the modernisation of newspaper production in the UK. But those changes would have come anyway: Murdoch’s brutalist tactics were designed to make his popular papers more profitable not to create better journalism. The Sun and the News of the World did indeed turn into the cash cows that fed the loss-making Times and helped to sustain Murdoch’s investment in BSkyB. Now that the News of the World has gone, scuppered by the phone-hacking charges, Murdoch is trying to save the Sun by starting a Sunday version. But as some commentators have pointed out, the shareholders of News Corporation (the media corporation that owns News International in the UK) back in the US may not be too keen to pump more money into the ailing Sun – print is seen by many as a dead media carrier. Will Rupert fall at the last hurdle? It’s too early to say and it seems like tempting fate too much. He won’t go quietly.

Social media and cinema use

Do you tweet about the films you see or perhaps invite your friends to a cinema screening of a new film via your Facebook page? The film industry has started to think about how to exploit the social media opportunities of the films they distribute but according to a report by Film3Sixty – a marketing company in the UK – they haven’t yet really grasped how important these new developments might be.

I’ve written about this report on The Case for Global Film. It comes up with some interesting findings about the most frequent cinema visitors, dividing them up into four groups: Blockbuster Only, Blockbuster Mainly, Indie Mainly and Indie Only. Which group do you fit into if you are a regular cinemagoer? It seems that some groups use Facebook and YouTube, some use Twitter and some avoid social media altogether.

More Danish delights!

Sidse Babett Knudsen, in her first TV series, plays coalition Prime Minister Birgitte Nyborg.

This is just to add to a chorus of praise for Borgen (Denmark 2010), the BBC4 political-thriller series set within Danish coalition politics. It’s produced by the same company that did The Killing 1 and 2, though the virtuoso combination of both a focused (one killing) and a spiralling set of plot lines over 20 episodes is not repeated here. ‘Borgen’ (‘castle’) is the Danish equivalent of Westminster in the UK – the general term for the centre of government. See the UK trailer on BBC website.

There’s lots of plot buzz about it, especially in blogs (see The Guardian’s) and they are understandably focused on the convincingness of plot lines, which caused controversy for The Killing 1 and 2. What Borgen does well is to mix a ‘glossy’ often thriller-ish narrative form and look with what feels like a properly complicated account of coalition politics involving a woman Prime Minister.

Also involved are journalism, ‘spin’, and familiar gendered issues around the work involved in bringing up a family, work outside the family, and sexism for many modern working women. It has been casually brilliant in its restrained construction of sexual relationships and their aftermath, or the trauma of abortion for the woman who has to take the decision. And its treatment of sexism at the highest levels of negotiation, which a woman in such a post would enter, is likewise restrained: the muttered ‘Mummy’ behind her back as she leaves a discussion with military top brass, for example.

Casting for a kind of glamour in its leads, it plays questions of appearance, for both men but especially women, superbly well. See discussion of Laura Mulvey and others in Representations chapter of MSB5. In particular it keeps complicating our sense of how scenes and imagery of women will go. I loved the high angle shots of a de-glamourised Katrine, tousled rather than infantilised-by-tousle, getting out of bed to answer the (dangerous) call at her door. The jokes, as well as the difficulties, in the sex life of a married, powerful woman with children are done with a light touch. Maybe decades of experience of Scandinavian social-democrat education and equality debates is sedimented here? And the treatment of small-nation dependency, with the hard political questions that raises, as well as the brute force of certain kinds of US power—all this has wide resonance and was superbly constructed in episode 4.

Enough! Glad to hear in this Independent article that a 2nd series has just been shown in Denmark, and a third is due. And a US version, involving the BBC, and aimed to be a kind of successor to The West Wing, is in development.

See also http://www.guardian.co.uk/tv-and-radio/2012/jan/14/borgen-danish-tv-thrillers for an account of ‘the thriller factory’ within Danish public service broadcasting, from which such series emerge. The rules: ‘Commissioners insist on original drama dealing with issues in contemporary society: no remakes, no adaptations.’ I’ve also heard the cold winter evenings in Denmark make the 8pm slot popular.

And finally, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stephen_Kinnock for some real world British connections to the first Danish woman Prime Minister—said to have enjoyed the series, broadcast a year before her election victory.

Archives and Re-releases

Judy Garland in ‘Meet Me in St Louis’ was ‘back’ in selected UK cinemas over Christmas 2011

In earlier editions of MSB we noted two important ways in which archives have been utilised by media industries. In the 1980s Hollywood studios (and other controllers of large film libraries like StudioCanal) realised that the value still wrapped up in library titles could be exploited by the new technologies that introduced multi-channel television and its insatiable demand for product. Hollywood had always re-released major films like Gone With the Wind at regular intervals but the value of all film libraries certainly increased when the opportunities to exploit them multiplied.

Music recordings were slightly different before the 1980s since many consumers already owned significant collections of shellac and vinyl discs. Clever marketing then helped to persuade them to buy some of the same recordings again on new formats, first on cassette and then CD. The new formats promised better quality and greater convenience – and perhaps less chance of accidental damage. However, when the move to digital came the music industry found that the next new format, digital MP3 files, allowed easy copying and instead of boosting sales through re-selling popular recordings, the loss of revenue threatened the industry’s long term future.

Now, it appears, the music majors are looking more seriously at their archives of unreleased material – alternate takes, aborted sessions etc. As it becomes more expensive to develop and promote new music acts which don’t necessarily sell recordings commensurate with the popularity of their music, why not turn to material by established stars that has already been paid for?

Kate Bush borrows an idea from cinema

As the market ages – remember the “£50 bloke” of a few years ago? – releases of “never heard before” material from Pink Floyd are due to join Kate Bush’s explorations and re-interpretations of her back catalogue on the ‘Director’s Cut’ Album. These releases although probably ‘copiable’ in digital format do offer something different, something ‘extra’ as suggested by the ‘generatives’ proposed by Kevin Kelly (see MSB5 p254). Collectors may be willing to buy a box set of alternate versions of well-known Pink Floyd songs, especially when packaged with material that can’t be copied so easily. The packages are known as ‘Immersion’ releases.

Jean Vigo's 'L'Atalante' on re-release from 20th January 2012

Digital cinema has seen another twist on the use of archives that is the product of the economics of digital distribution. Cinema re-releases of classic or cult films has again had a long history. Even so it required careful judgement of the market to make it work financially. A 35mm film print costs around £1,000 to produce. So it was often only possible to put out a single print that toured cinemas and which without the benefit of promotion and marketing could only attract small audiences. Now a 2K digital print on a hard drive costs a few hundred pounds to master and duplicate so that a digital copy of an archive film can be stored on the ‘theatre systems’ of several cinemas at the same time.  Perhaps you saw Meet Me in St. Louis or It’s a Wonderful Life over the Christmas period? Perhaps I can interest you in the restored version of Les Enfants du Paradis as well? In truth this is a development that hasn’t been fully exploited yet – it needs to reach the multiplex in areas where there isn’t an established independent arthouse cinema. But if you’ve never seen a classic black and white film on a big screen in a brand new digital print, I’d urge you to take the plunge. There’s nothing like it! In the next few weeks one of the three completed films by the cinema’s first great youth rebels, Jean Vigo, goes on release. Read about L’Atalante here and discover some of the first screening dates.

Here’s a clip from YouTube:

Hugo 3D Update

Following an earlier posting on Martin Scorsese, a review of Hugo in 3D has now been posted on the itpworld website. In a nutshell, I think that the use of 3D is everything that might be expected from Scorsese but the film narrative is perhaps rather less than we might have hoped.

The box office returns so far suggest that the mass audience has not been attracted to the film so we can’t really tell whether the 3D is proving a draw. In the UK, a 3D film in the multiplex sees £2-3 being added to the usual ticket price which means a significant hike in the cost of taking the family to the pictures. Hugo, like many other 3D films, is also being shown in 2D on many screens.

As of last weekend, Hugo had just reached $50 million in North America after 6 weeks and is now falling down the chart. In the UK the Christmas fortnight figures aren’t released in full until Thursday but Hugo has already shown signs of faltering – by Week 2 its screen average had already dropped below $2,000, a sure sign of weak box office. The children’s film in the UK during December has been Arthur Christmas by a considerable margin over the rest of the field.

High critical praise in the US may help Hugo into the Oscar race and eventually the film might find the audience it deserves but at the moment it would seem that 3D isn’t quite the winner it has been proclaimed to be.

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?)

Back online – with Scorsese

Martin Scorsese "directs Hugo"

We’re sorry that this blog has been quiet for most of 2011, especially given the momentous events in the media environment here in the UK and worldwide. Murdoch’s bloody nose, with the closing of the News of the World and the hounding of tabloid phone hackers, and the potential for more open media following the ‘Arab Spring’ are just two of the stories we would like to have covered.

But now we are back and we’ll try to keep the blog alive. First off we want to focus on how a well-known Hollywood name allows a possible different perspective on two current issues.

Martin Scorsese is arguably the most revered Hollywood film director, feted by cinephiles but also known to more mainstream cinemagoers and even an Oscar-winner for The Departed in 2007. That film was a ‘remake’ of stories from the Hong Kong trilogy of Infernal Affairs films and its Oscar and box office success seemed to give a legitimacy to the Hollywood practice of remaking foreign language films. We’ve covered this in MSB in relation to horror films like The Ring series and in MSB5 we noted the remake of Let the Right One In which emerged in 2010 as Let Me In. In many cases the remakes are quite serviceable but the debate goes on – why remake? Why not release the foreign language original properly? I’m not looking forward to David Fincher’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo remake due out in a few weeks. Fincher, like Scorsese, trades on his reputation as a ‘name’ filmmaker. But in this case the Swedish film (directed by Danish director Niels Arden Oplev) is already an American-style thriller and without Noomi Rapace as Lisbeth Salander, the Fincher version seems hard to justify.

But why link this to Martin Scorsese now? Simply because a report a couple of weeks ago announced that Scorsese is to adapt the work of the best-selling Norwegian writer Jo Nesbø. Nesbø is in some ways the heir to Stieg Larsson’s popularity with the Millennium Trilogy featuring Lisbeth Salander, although Nesbø’s Inspector Harry Hole has been around for several years in a succession of crime thrillers. Scorsese’s choice is The Snowman which was an international bestseller earlier this year. This isn’t a re-make since Nesbø has been very careful about allowing his work to be adapted – the first adaptation (not a Harry Hole story) was only released in Norway this year. And Nesbø loves Scorsese. He tells us that the poster for Taxi Driver was on his wall when he first began to write and that he doesn’t mind if Scorsese moves the setting of the film. In the midst of the international rush to put ‘Nordic Noir’ on screens in English (e.g. the US TV remake of the Danish series The Killing), Scorsese might well find acceptance with some fans (Nordic film companies are only to happy to co-operate).

The other Scorsese story is the opening of his film Hugo – a children’s film, a fantasy, a narrative about cinema? The film has already won an award from the National Board of Review in the US and it seems set to be an international hit. It is also the first film by a director of Scorsese’s standing to be made in 3D. Mark Kermode, perhaps the most popular film critic in the UK and famously extremely ‘anti’ towards 3D once said that he wouldn’t take it seriously unless Scorsese made a film in the format. Last Friday on his radio show on BBC Radio 5 Live Kermode grudgingly accepted that used by Scorsese, 3D could be interesting.

3D is now central to the release of ‘tentpole movies’ in mainstream cinema. In the UK, the biggest multiplex chain, Odeon, is now completely digital and able to offer 3D in many of its screens. But recently box office for 3D releases has been disappointing with audiences not willing to pay the extra cost for the 3D versions of films like Harry Potter. It will be interesting to see if Hugo will buck this trend. Scorsese fans will be interested to see how he presents the history of special effects in the cinema (which is an integral part of the plot of the film). But will this fascination with early cinema tricks attract the family audience? We’ll let you know. Also to come over Christmas is the latest Bollywood blockbuster, Don 2 starring Sharukh Khan and scheduled as a 3D release.