Saturday, 6 November 2010

Meddling with the psychology of a nation



"I woke up to a mental image of Moira Stewart standing outside the BBC shouting SCABSCABSCAB in Alan Dedicoat's face"

The good people of the BBC don't strike very often, but when they do, it's somewhat eerie. Turning on your television set on the morning of Friday 5 November, a day usually set aside for remembering a certain dramatic occasion in history, you may have been forgiven for thinking that a national emergency of some sort had just occurred. It hadn't of course, except that several thousand journalists working for BBC news outlets on television and radio and its website, from Humphrys and Paxman downwards, had refused to cross picket lines. The reason was a strike called by the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) in protest to the Beeb's management over pension reform.

It was said that, during the Cold War, when Radio 4's Today Programme stopped broadcasting, civilisation and society as we know it had ended, and it would be only safe to emerge from your deep level nuclear bunker or Protect and Survive inspired domestic shelter once the programme had started broadcasting again. In fact, as was reported yesterday, nuclear sub commanders supposedly watched for this as sign UK obliterated by nuclear strike. Listening to Radio Four at 7:45am yesterday, I kept expecting to hear a four minute warning and a stern, patrician voice telling me to 'STAY INDOORS', in the sort of imaginary post-apocalyptic way the wonderful Mitchell and Webb sketch so brilliantly parodied.

So, instead of the usual Today gang, we got an peaceful and easy going early morning documentary on birds and, as an extra special treat, like your mother letting you off doing your maths homework because it's your birthday, even Thought for the Day was forfeited. There just weren't any journalists around to 'make' the news. I doubt for one moment many of the big stars were actually on the picket lines, but I loved the spoof 'bbctvcentre' Twitter account, which gave us a running commentary of the comradely solidarity outside Television Centre: “Keep it up, my loves," trills Brucie. "I'll see you in the bar for a drink afterwards”. And the Guardian had its own take on the allegedly gaping void left by Today, with its own live blog 'covering' the same sort of stories that would normally be broadcast.

Did we miss our usual diet of news, current affairs, religious lectures and sport? No, I don't think so. As a friend of mine, who's worked in the centre of the government's media operation, said: “no disrespect to the NUJ strike at the Beeb, but I can't say I miss the Today programme on Radio 4. Tired format, self-important presenters”. And as Breakfast and Five Live carried on with a mix of stand-ins and skeleton staff, repeating old news and even drafting in senior executives, commentators reflected on the different tone set by the lack of BBC news coverage. “The world feels a calmer place” said Steve Richards from the Independent, as “news is determined less by what happens but availability of journalists and tone they take”. It seems maybe for the first time, that the Westminster village (and I put the media at large in that category), is beginning to doubt the quality of the BBC's output and a style of journalism and programming that could be putting self-serving inflated egos before audiences.

I don't doubt that the BBC needs a morning news magazine on radio, and a light and fluffy television breakfast show (which my boyfriend calls 'middle class live'), but I get the feeling that it's time to take a step back and take a proper look at what audiences actually want. The Today programme supposedly plays to a very important Westminster audience who would be aghast if anything were to change, but the BBC needs to remember its wider remit and bring its radio output up-to-date. BBC Breakfast is so twee I can't watch it, and only gets bigger audiences than 'the other side' because its new rival is so awful, and sets the standard of coverage at such an insulting low. News coverage needn't be dry or boring, nor insulting or patronising – it is possible to cover both current affairs, culture and 'lifestyle' issues without assuming your audience are either members of Mensa or can't even sit in a chair because they can barely function.

I'll be pleased when normal programming returns because I like to know what's going on in the world when I start my day. And I support the journalists' dispute, but that's a separate issue here. But a short break in normal service is a great opportunity to reflect on what could be – a sharper, more interesting and less 'personality' led style of broadcasting – which is genuinely led by professional journalism and not mythical audience whims.

1 comment:

Andy Jaeger said...

I agree that there is a real issue with the quality of the BBC's morning output, which you only really notice when you have a chance to think about it. The NUJ strike gave us that chance. That said, I think the biggest impact of the strike is the part of the news machine that goes unseen - the fact that the news gathering operation effectively ground to a halt. Andy Coulson getting away with going to the police on Thursday evening with barely a passing glance from Sky News (no surprise there) goes to show how much of our public discourse seemingly depends on BBC news gathering. I'm still not sure whether this is something to be worried about or not.

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