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31 things I learned in March 2020

1: Talking about how to influence politicians, Professor Dame Sally Davies told the HSJ ”You’ve got to think ‘where are they coming from’ and frame the issues so it has salience for them.” When I was lucky enough to work alongside her, I learned a huge amount from just watching how Sally worked. It still strikes me as notable that many doctors take the approach she describes with their patients but don’t do the same in political discussion. 


2: Leaving portfolios until the end of the appraisal/CPD year is a bad idea. This isn’t really a lesson specific to this year, but I never seem to learn it regardless. 


3: Some days are longer and busier than others. 


4: In Grandeur and Greed, Giles Smith refers to Bassano’s painting The Animals Entering Noah’s Ark as having “the worst depiction of an elephant in any exhibited artwork in a major gallery”. It took me a while to spot it, which rather says it all: I think he might be right


5: It’s always lovely to reconnect with an old friend. 


6: Just as the first casualty of war is truth, the first casualty of pandemics is common sense. 


7: The more intensely I work, the more I lose perspective. This is a useful trait, great for total immersion in complex projects, for trying to untangle a complicated outbreak or for trying to make a useful and structured text from lots of conflicting ideas. But I’m learning that it’s not a helpful trait when working intensely to others’ plans, because it’s easy to become fixated on the flaws and fault lines of my little corner rather than seeing the bigger picture taking shape. Rest helps to restore perspective. 


8: I’m not sure whether I actually learned anything from it, but David Marchese’s interview with Aaron Sorkin in The New York Times Magazine was brilliant. 


9: I’ve learned what book reviewers think is the point of book reviews


10: Being woken in the middle of the night when on call seems to get even less fun each time it happens, and covid-19 means it is happening a lot. 


11: Sleeping for 12-and-a-half hours straight is still a thing that happens when I’m tired enough. 


12: The Electoral Commission recommends postponing the May elections until the autumn, and I’m surprised by how conflicted I feel about that. 


13: Mind-gardening is a thing. Apparently. 


14: I can’t remember the last time a cartoon stopped me in my tracks like this one by Ella Baron


15: Philippe Descamps’s article in Le Monde Diplo on cycling in Copenhagen was interesting—particularly the bit about having predictable provision according to the road’s speed limit. The article suggests that only 6% of daily journeys in Copenhagen are on foot, which I suspect is an artefact of the definition of “journey”: almost everyone will walk some distance on foot each day, and on the occasions when I’ve visited Copenhagen, I’ve enjoyed the fact that provision for pedestrians is as thoughtfully considered as the provision for cyclists. 


16: Despite it being (apparently) very commonly taught in schools and universities, it is only at the age of 34 that I’ve first heard of the “five paragraph essay”


17: The good people of Newcastle are, it seems, panic-buying chicken. 

Empty shelves

18: Snail facials are exactly what they sound like. According to Race Across the World, there are 52 species of hummingbird in Costa Rica. This came as a particular surprise to me as I thought ‘hummingbird’ was a species. I know nothing. 


19: Even a fairly crude “guy walks into a bar joke” can be a delight when it’s well written. 


20: I usually walk to work: it takes a little under an hour, which is only a little longer than it takes by Metro or car. Today I learned that if the rest of the world self-isolates, it actually only takes nine minutes to drive. 


21: Traveling from London to Mallorca by train, foot and ship is easier, but less environmentally efficient, than I’d have guessed. 


22: I’ve never thought before about the fact that escalator machinery on the London Underground wears unevenly because of “the weight of those who dutifully stand on the right”. 


23: This time three months ago, I thought it was extraordinary that a Government would remove the right of citizens to live and work in any country in the EU. Never did I imagine a British Government could remove citizens’ rights to the extent that they have to stay indoors. I’m living in extraordinary times. 


24: Most of the time, letters responding to articles in medical journals add very little. Sometimes, though, they add completely new insights which change my perspective on an issue: pointing out that health improvement interventions that go along with screening tests are usually ignored in analyses of the effectiveness of screening programmes is a great example. 


25: I don’t think I’ve ever seen an episode of Doctors


26: There’s a reason why it feels strange to walk on a stopped escalator


27: It’s been too long since I last listened to Reply All


28: “Self-sacrifice has always been an implicit part of being a doctor. It is a source of both pride and pain, and why, on the whole, doctors and nurses deserve our respect. Rarely has it been so called upon as in the covid-19 crisis.” 


29: It’s tough to be a spy in a country in covid-19 lockdown. 


30: An article by Peter Blegvad in the latest Brixton Review of Books made me think quite a lot about the relative accuracy of each of imagination, observation and memory: a theme explored in quite a few novels I’ve read, but which I don’t think I’d really considered in art before. 


31: “Pineapple is the smell of masculine.” Apparently. 

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Six reasons Sambrook is wrong about 24-hour news

Earlier in the year, Richard Sambrook (the former director of BBC News) wrote an article for The Guardian in which he argued that 24-hour news channels were no longer relevant in the modern world. This week, with news reaching The Independent that his thoughts are being taken seriously inside the BBC, I feel like it's time to put across an alternate point of view.

Here are six reasons I believe Sambrook is wrong.

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1. News channels don't need to break news first

Cable news established the 24-hour news habit, but today social media and mobile phones fulfill the instant news needs of consumers better than any TV channel can. Twitter – and increasingly live blogs of breaking news events – consistently beat 24-hour TV channels. Being first – the primary criterion for 24-hour news channels – is increasingly the least interesting and effective value they offer.

Sambrook is right to say that the ability of television channels to deliver lines of breaking news at high speed is limited in comparison to online sources, whether accessed through mobile phones or social media. But most online and social media outlets are poor at putting those lines of breaking news into context. Indeed, at present, news channels are equally poor at this.

In my vision of a news channel, a line of breaking news would appear on screen, in much the same way as it appears online. Perhaps, "Valco supermarket chain in administration". I don't need the channel to break away from whatever it is reporting to bring me this news – it can simply appear on screen. That is the benefit of the visual medium.

Then, within a short period (say within fifteen minutes or half an hour), the BBC can put one of its expert business correspondents on the air to discuss that news in context. They can tell me the relevance of this to the City, to individuals, and perhaps even bring a degree of response from their journalistic contacts.

There is no need to discuss the news immediately and constantly repeat a single line accompanied with endless speculation. Instead, the channel should wait until there is something to report, and report it in a detailed and intelligent way.

 

2. News channels needn’t conform to expensive norms

The infrastructure behind a 24-hour news channel is impressive – and formidably expensive. The biggest cost comes from having created a machine that has to be fed. Every 15 minutes we go back to our reporter in the field for an update on what's happened since the last time we visited them. Most of the time the answer is "nothing".

Going back to a reporter in the field every fifteen minutes is not only expensively, it's also irritating. There is no need to do this. There are two reasons news channels do this: to fill time, and to follow the structure of a conventional network news bulletin every half hour.

We'll return to the former, but the latter is simply farcical. There is no reason (beyond "it's what we've always done") for 24-hour news channels to follow the structure of a conventional news bulletin. There is no reason why we have to return to the same correspondent to repeat the same news every hour. This is a problem of the format, not of the medium. A much more open-ended structure is possible.

 

3. News channels needn’t carry everything live

Newsgathering becomes a sausage machine, dedicated to filling airtime. Hours a day are spent on live feeds waiting for something, anything, to happen. The editor can't risk broadcasting a different report or going live somewhere else in case he misses the start and a rival channel can claim to be "first".

Of course, there is no reason to do this other than it being what rivals do. Every Wednesday, I cringe as presenters on television and radio fill in anticipation of Prime Minister's Questions, which starts a variable number of minutes after midday. Every Wednesday, I wonder why no broadcaster has had the bright idea of scheduling a five-minute discussion previewing the content, and then starting the coverage, cleanly and professionally at 12.05, through the simple use of a few minutes' delay.

The number of people who are insistent on watching Prime Ministers' Questions absolutely live is probably tiny. I know that I, for one, would prefer to watch a slick production with informed commentary and analysis rather than an unedifying scramble every week.

 

4. News channels needn’t uselessly fill time

The need to fill airtime – and particularly the need to be seen to be live – means that in the heat of the moment questionable editorial judgments can be made. Everything seems to be "breaking news". In the last 12 months we've seen the BBC showing live pictures of an empty courtroom in the US, eagerly anticipating the sentencing of already convicted kidnapper Ariel Castro – a story of interest to few if any in the UK.

There is a need to fill airtime. There is not a need to fill airtime with live content. With 24-hours at their disposal, and with less of an emphasis on a presenter reading a single headline every time news breaks, there is much greater scope for in-depth reporting and interviews with newsmakers. Watch an hour of any 24-hour news channel, and you'll almost certainly see an interview cut short, often for no good reason. Allow these to be much more open ended, and repeat them (in edited form, with expert analysis) and much of the airtime will be filled. As with Prime Minister's Questions, make much more extensive use of live delays and on-the-fly editing to increase the standard of presentation, and to allow the programme to naturally flow.

Similarly, I can see no reason why these channels don't make the most of the available air time to show more "explainers". I think an occasional airing of an updated 15 minute background package on what's actually happening in Ukraine would be a valuable service a news channel could offer. And it would fill time at low cost.

 

5. News channels can show pre-recorded packages

The number of stories that are conveyed by live "as it happens" pictures is vanishingly small. Many stories – the economy, climate change – aren't best served by pictures; others (inside Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan or Zimbabwe) often don't have pictures available until days after the event; many more work better with a well crafted, tightly edited package rather than a live feed.

There is no reason for 24-hour news channels to be so focused on live pictures. Well-crafted, tightly-edited packages would be welcomed by viewers over somebody standing in the rain reporting nothing.

 

6. Sambrook's vision doesn't fulfill the BBC’s purpose

What might a reconfigured on-demand news service look like?

Sambrook's suggested on-demand news service (I haven't quoted his whole plan, for it is far too long) involves people actively participating in creating their own bulletin. This is precisely the opposite of what I believe the BBC should be doing.

We, the people, have terrible news values. The more the BBC tries to align itself with our values, the more it degrades its worth. We need to be told what we need to be told. We need experts to fight for coverage of their areas. We need to know what matters, not what we want to know. And we place our trust in the BBC to make those decisions for us.

If the BBC won't make those decisions, but will defer to us, then there is no point in the BBC existing. I can ferret out news that interests me from a wide variety of sources without the Beeb's help. And in the areas in which I have a particular interest, that's exactly what I do.

But the BBC, and its news channel, should be about expert contextualisation. It should be the outlet which says "actually, this isn't an important story, so we're not covering it in depth" more often that it says "sit up and pay attention, this is boring but important".

It should make the most of genuine experts in their field – including fields it currently covers with a laughable level of credibility, like science and technology. The BBC news channel should be the "news channel of record". It should cover things in depth and intelligently. It should not chase ratings, and it should not be in a race to read out lines of news with no context. It should not be obsessed with live coverage. It should edit, curate, and analyse.

 

 

In his analysis, Sambrook conflates the current output of news channels with the medium of news channels itself. He uses the argument that current output is poor to suggest that there should be no output. I disagree.

I think that news channels can be done better – particularly the BBC News channel, which doesn't have to answer to shareholders, and doesn't have to chase ratings. It should be held to a higher standard, and should drive the quality of 24-hour news up. The BBC should not abandon it altogether.



A version of this post also appears on Medium.

The image in this post was posted on Flickr by Ian Wright, and is used under Creative Commons licence.

This 2,228th post was filed under: Media, Miscellaneous, News and Comment, Responses, Tweeted, , , , .

Moaning to the media

Every now and again, I find myself moaning to Sky News about some report or other they’re running, usually on a medical topic. This might put me in the same box as the green-ink angry brigade of old, but I kind of hope it doesn’t.

Sky News is normally the outlet on the receiving end of my moans because Wendy likes to watch Sunrise in the mornings, so they tend to be the ones to irk me when I’m sleepy-eyed and vulnerable. Usually, they’ve misunderstood the findings of some piece of research, or are giving advice that needs a little more nuance. Generally, I fire off an email to them, and they correct either their script or package pretty quickly, or else get back to me to explain why they won’t. I actually think I have a pretty good relationship with them.

A few years ago when the whole MTAS debacle was kicking off in the medical world, I helped Channel 4 News with some of their reporting, and also found them really helpful, willing to listen to my explanations, and good at accurate reportage.

Until a couple of weeks ago, I don’t think I’ve ever complained about a BBC News report. But then, the BBC News website published this article about the Queen’s faith role. This couldn’t be further from the stuff I’d usually moan about, but the report was based on a COMRES poll, and originally opened with the claim that 80% of the population supported the Queen’s faith role. I didn’t believe this, and so checked out the original data on the COMRES website, which revealed that 80% responded positively to a question about whether the Queen has a faith role. This is, of course, different from giving support – it’s a question of fact, and, as the Queen is the head of the Church of England, it seems pretty undeniable that she has a faith role, whether or not it’s supported.

So I fired off an email. And, within hours, the article was changed to the current version, which reports the actual survey findings more accurately. What I hadn’t anticipated, and hadn’t had from any other outlet, was that the Religion Editor gave me a call. We had a great chat in which he explained how the article had come about, how the mistake had been made, and also a general talk about the complex rules that the BBC has around commissioning surveys. This was fantastic.

So what’s my point? Essentially, any time I personally have moaned to a media outlet about a factual reporting error, I’ve received a positive response. Granted, it would be better that the mistakes weren’t there in the first place, and it’s probably true that not all sections of the media are as responsible as those I’ve been involved with.

But journalists are humans too. They make mistakes, and many of them seem happy to have these corrected. Leveson might give the impression that all journalists are unethical idiots, and Blair might think they’re feral beasts, but some journalists are just doing a bloody hard job as well as they can, with the utmost professionalism.

I know it’s not a popular view at the moment, but maybe we can consider giving journalists a break sometimes? Just a thought.

This 1,658th post was filed under: Media, News and Comment, , , , .




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