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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 2,229th post was filed under: Headliner, Media, 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.

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The BBC’s future is under threat from social media

I predict that the BBC is about to enter one of the most turbulent periods in its history – and I’m not certain whether it will come out the other side in a recognisable form. The next decade may well be the one in which the licence fee becomes unsustainable.

I desperately hope this doesn’t happen. I think the Beeb is the world’s greatest broadcaster, and one of Britain’s most awesome institutions. Yet the signs are there, and I think the Beeb needs to sit up ad notice them.

The BBC’s raison d’être has always been to “inform, educate, and entertain” – and, as successive Directors General have been keen to point out – that order of priorities is crucial. In recent years, the BBC has faced real challenges with the latter two of these, but it’s about to be shaken by an impossible threat to the first.

It’s mission to “entertain” has been threatened in recent years by the approximately decennial shifts between ITV and the BBC in dominance of Saturday night TV: the last decade of Pop Idol, X Factor, I’m a Celebrity and the Talent franchise has been ITV’s. The BBC has also had real difficulty catching up with commercial operators in its engagement of young adults. And the Brand-Ross affair caused stifling restriction to creativity at the hands of “compliance”. But by and large, it seems to be finding its feet, and learning to walk through he entertainment genre again.

The aim to “educate” has been challenged by the ludicrous QueenGate scandal, where non-broadcast footage of the Queen was edited out of sequence. The BBC’s massive over-reaction probably harmed its trustworthy reputation. And the exile of almost all high-brow factual programming to the digital diaspora of BBC Four made for an excellent channel, but also for frequent accusations of dumbing-down elsewhere. And getting Jeremy flipping Vine to “host” Panorama was unforgivable – though I suspect that’s more a personal bugbear than a threat to the corporation’s future existence.

The most significant threat to the BBC has always been any threat to its news output. If it can’t reliably “inform”, then it has no core purpose. And, I think, it’s this aspect of the BBC’s purpose that is about to be shaken to its core.

The Times has declared itself many times (even, laughably, recently) to be “the newspaper of record”, and – to borrow the expression – the BBC’s news bulletins have always been the broadcast bulletins of record. The lead story on the Nine or Ten O’Clock News has always been, by definition, the “big story”. Alistair Campbell obsessed over the Labour Party’s position in the running order because he knew that closeness to the top guaranteed closeness to the top of everyone else’s running order. The BBC’s bulletins have, for many years, been the arbiter of importance in this country’s news cycle. And it is this that is under threat.

I think it was Tim Cook, though it could easily have been someone else, who described the notifications centre in. iOS 5 as compiling “your life’s breaking news”. And that is the crux of the problem. The democratisation of the media, brought about by social media as much as anything else, means we all have a “top story” now.

The BBC is forever being criticised on Twitter for not covering some story or other in huge detail – be it famines (East Africa), protests (block the bridge), or reforms (NHS). People are passionate about their pet topics, and want to see the BBC leading on them. The positive reinforcement from similarly interested people on social media reinforces individuals’ perceptions of the popularity and importance of the cause: “Everyone in my Twitter feed supports x, yet it hasn’t been on BBC News”. Folk also tend to read websites and subscribe to RSS feeds that share their own views and agenda, further reinforcing their own belief of the importance of the story. But, of course, the range of stories believed to be important across all individuals is huge.

The BBC’s traditional hierarchy of the importance of stories no longer applies to the majority of viewers. People begin to believe that the BBC is ignoring their interests, perhaps because it is biased. In fact, the interest is a small minority one, thought to be a larger one only because the individuals is surrounded by factors which positively reinforce that view.

The problem is exacerbated by BBC funding cuts, which mean that the number of stories which get any coverage at all is reduced.

Yet the BBC’s news starts to seem irrelevant, or even biased against every individual’s views. “Why cover Liam Fox / Steve Jobs / Nick Clegg, when he’s just one man? The BBC should be leading on NHS Reform / Block the Bridge / Famine / General Strike / Pensions / Finance because that affects us all, everyone’s interested in it, and it’s a really important story.”

Recently, I’ve been following NHS reform with particular interest, and felt this effect myself. There was little coverage of the Lord’s vote on the NHS reform bill, but my Twitter feed and selected websites had been covering events minute-by-minute. To me, the story seemed earth-shatteringly huge, and I had difficulty understanding why the BBC was effectively ignoring this massively important story. Except, in the grand scheme of things, it was essentially a procedural Lords discussion about a Bill progressing through Parliament. There was a popular campaign to block it which never had the scent of success, and by the end of the day, we knew little that we didn’t know at the start. Yet to me, this story remained huge, and the BBC’s lack of coverage felt disenfranchising.

As more people embrace social media, and as news sources fragment into finer and finer grain communities, the gap between the stories the BBC’s website and flagship bulletins see as important and the stories we as individuals see as important will turn from a crack into a gulf. People will question the purpose of the BBC, and struggle to see its importance. “If the BBC can’t even cover x properly, then what’s the point?”

If trust in the BBC’s news is eroded like this, then it’s unique funding stream becomes increasingly difficult to defend – especially in recessionary times. And in a decade which looks certain to be dominated by the Tories, who is going to stick up for it politically?

For the BBC to survive, it needs to change its news output. A homepage which “learns” about your interests and prioritises its news hierarchy appropriately might be the beginnings of a start.  But how the BBC can possibly reflect the conflicting priorities of millions of people in a meaningful way against a shrinking budget is beyond me – and that’s why I fear for its future.

This 1,450th post was filed under: Media, , , , , , .

The BBC’s “Have Your Say” feature adds value

Yesterday, Barnardo’s released the results of a survey of 2,000 adults which revealed that 54% felt that children in the UK behave like animals. That’s strong and, frankly, scary stuff… Clearly not enough people have been reading this site.

The very same day, one of my blogging colleagues over at Crashed Pips used the story to deliver an almighty harangue against BBC News‘s Have Your Say feature. I’m sorry, Jonathan, but in this case I just can’t agree.

You see, I find some comments on Have Your Say as amusing as the next guy. I greatly appreciate the efforts of site like spEak You’re bRanes in putting the funniest and most ridiculous contributions directly in front of my eyes via Google Reader.

Yet, like the BBC Radio 5 Live Phone-in, in amongst the utter banality lies the occasional sparkling diamond – one of those moments where you finally understand why your opinion is so disconnected from that of almost everybody else, and perhaps come to appreciate the frame of reference the rest of the world is using.

Given, then, that I was so utterly dumbfounded to discover that the majority of adults apparently view children as feral, the Have Your Say discussion plays a vital role: It allows the seemingly idiotic majority to explain and justify their views. After having the pleasure of reading a couple of pages of comments, it’s suddenly much clearer that the majority is primarily made up of those who fervently believe the misleading impression of youth generated by the media. This allows my breathing to steady, my pulse to slow, and me to continue with daily life.

My point is that this is the kind of story where Have Your Say is anything but useless: It allows for clearer expansion and explanation of the nation’s feelings on a topic and hence adds to the reportage. A Have Your Say topic about living with Blackberries, with a tenuous link to the Presidential style of Barack Obama, is clearly less enlightening.

Now, there’s just one other thing puzzling me about Jonathan’s post: He says that, in the minds of the masses,

anyone under 25 who speaks with a slight accent and wears a hoody is automatically a troublemaker

I’m under 25, speak with a slight accent, and quite often wear a cardigan. What the hell does that make me?

This 1,379th post was filed under: News and Comment, Responses, , , , , , , .

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