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.
Three of the principals in this news story as pictured on the website of Metro.co.uk in April 2010. From left, Mia Farrow, Naomi Campbell and Charles Taylor.
The last couple of weeks has thrown up one of the best examples of the contradictory nature of so-called ‘news values’. How much notice have you been taking of the long war crimes trial in the Hague in which the former Liberian President Charles Taylor faces charges? Probably not much if you are like everyone else. Long trials are not inherently newsworthy unless there is a major revelation or a verdict or sentencing statement. Media theorists might refer to this as part of the ‘narrativisation‘ of news – in this case the adoption of the conventions of the courtroom drama in which all the boring bits are passed over to concentrate on the dramatic highlights. We might expect that we wouldn’t hear much more about this trial until a verdict was announced.
The Taylor trial began in 2007, but the defence achieved a postponement for one year and the prosecution took a further year to present its evidence. The defence team presented evidence during 2009 and for much of 2010 the prosecution have been cross-examining defence witnesses. Taylor had been indicted initially in 2003. There was considerable coverage at the start of proceedings, especially as the charges relate to Taylor’s involvement in the Sierra Leone Civil War. But coverage can’t be sustained – not least because of expense as well as the lack of ‘new story material’.
Now the values of entertainment and personalisation come into play (see pp 342-9 in MSB5). The cross-examination of celebrities Naomi Campbell and Mia Farrow, both of whom attended a dinner given by Nelson Mandela also attended by Charles Taylor, allows news reporting from a wide range of media outlets to focus on famous individuals and to exploit the frisson of excitement created by the conjunction of celebrity and serious crime. Of course, it also helps that Summer is a slack time for news and this story has the attraction of predictability. The initial claims about the ‘blood diamonds’ that Taylor is alleged to have given to Naomi Campbell were reported via celebrity gossip, but the court hearings are scheduled in advance. News is generally not as random as might be expected – news gatherers like to prepare in advance.
This is potentially a big news story and it easily crosses the threshold to attract attention across the globe through the use of the names of Campbell, Farrow and Mandela. But does it amount to much in the face of the real issues at stake in the trial? In the UK, the ‘serious news media’ and especially the BBC have been accused of ‘dumbing down’ yet again with their focus on Campbell in particular. What do we all think of this argument? Is it a waste of news production resources or has the attention given to Campbell brought the main story of the trial back into the general awareness of large numbers of people?
The new Con-Lib coalition government in the UK released its ‘austerity budget’ last week. Reporting this was a sensitive issue for broadcasters given the regulatory requirement for impartiality. Less so for newspapers with their freedom to publish ‘comment’ perhaps, but still an issue.
The main issue for government is to spin the most positive angle on what is inevitably bad news. The budget is about cuts – huge cuts of up to 25% in public spending. Everyone knows there will be pain, so how do the Tories (who dominate the coalition) to play it? Their aim is to create a ‘positive’ atmosphere and disguise the pain. PM Cameron and Chancellor Osborne are notoriously smooth and sleek. (Guardian cartoonist Steve Bell now shows Cameron as an overfilled condom, tight and smooth – see his video from the last election in which Bell discusses this image.)
Cameron worked in PR and his ministers continually use phrases like “We’re all in it together” to disguise the gross inequalities of their policies. Still, I was surprised that BBC Radio fell into the trap of using what I assumed to be Cameron-speak when it reported that one of the measures in the new budget would see a ‘relaxing’ of the previous government’s requirement that patients must be seen by a GP within 48 hours of seeking an appointment (and scrapping the right to a hospital appointment within 18 weeks of referral by a GP). See this report in the (Tory-leaning) Daily Telegraph for the use of language.
‘Relax’ is such a soothing, ‘easy’ word. It’s accompanied by the ubiquitous ‘free/freeing’ to be found everywhere in Cameron-speak. So, this isn’t a cut, instead it frees the NHS to be more efficient. Hmm! Well it is a cut if it means that most ordinary people seeking medical help find themselves waiting longer – they will feel it as a cut and I think that the BBC should have questioned whether using the term was appropriate. To be fair, this use of ‘relax’ has a long history with government spinners – Blair’s administration weren’t averse to using it when they thought it appropriate. (This is my attempt to be balanced!)
A different but connected example was in another radio report which quoted the new Tory Communities and Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles. He had just announced that he was going to restrict the publication of free newspapers by local councils because they may be being used for propaganda purposes and because they represented unfair competition for local commercial publishing ventures. The report was supported by a statement from the Newspaper Society – the ‘voice’ of the local newspaper industry proprietors. Unsurprisingly this supported Pickles. Not surprising really since they have lobbied the Tories to do this. So, where was the balance, the statement by local councils about why they ventured into publishing?
Well, I didn’t hear it on the radio, but on the BBC website it’s tucked in at the bottom of the report with a brief statement from the Local Government Association. Is this sufficient to balance Pickles’ wild claims about ‘town hall Pravdas’ (Pravda was the major government newspaper in the former Soviet Union)? The issue here isn’t so much about how useful local council publications are for residents – no doubt some are and many aren’t. It’s more about the agenda for news – how in this case broadcasters are led into stories via press releases and then how reports are constructed around provocative soundbites. The LGA in this case no doubt finds it difficult to respond as it represents a diverse range of councils. I suspect we will return to this. It also applies to far larger political questions such as the spin sustained over decades by the Israeli Government on its treatment of Palestinians. But that’s another story . . .
(See Chapter 12 in The Media Student’s Book on News)