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.

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.

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.