Tag Archives: BBC

Royal Baby brings world…..Meh

easelWho decided we were all excited?

Where did the memo come from stating as fact a collective holding of expectant breath? Not just in the UK but all over the world: All of us were apparently desperate for the happy news of the royal birth. All of us were thrilled to bits when the baby boy’s arrival was announced.

Except even the most basic analysis suggests we weren’t.

“The world waits” was a headline on the BBC’s online page for much of Monday after the Duchess of Cambridge went into labour. It was a strap-line for most of the day on the BBC’s rolling news channel where desperate reporters filled for hours while, in the case of one now wildly popular presenter, admitting they had nothing to say.

Across TV and radio channels, veteran royal watchers (nearly all elderly men) wittered on about “history in the making.” Beaming news anchors told us we could barely contain ourselves in our excitement over the arrival of the royal child.

It was the same earlier today. “Royal baby brings world celebrations,” was the BBC online headline. “World Welcomes the Royal Bub,” said an almost hysterical Sky.

But evidence of a global delirium is hard to find. A quick scan of newspaper sites from Indonesia and Ohio to Uganda and Kenya suggested not a jot of interest in the impending arrival of the third in line to the throne. (With the one exception being the Straits Times in Singapore). The Arab media has barely mentioned the news at all.

The birth itself prompted only slightly more coverage, little if any of it celebratory. Much of what foreign newspapers write merely reflects back at us what we’ve been told: that the entire British population is as besotted with the child as the new parents must be.

I blame in part the TV networks, particularly in the US. As the near-obsessional devotion to Downton Abbey suggests, Americans love it when their dated notions of a quaint old Blighty are confirmed. A beautiful princess, a future king, what could be more perfect for what passes as news on today’s celebrity driven infotainment TV?

In Canada the Queen is head of state and there’s a genuine affection for the royals. But that affection’s being manipulated by Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper who’s been busy re-shaping Canadian institutions to reflect long-lost ties with the UK. (Critics say it’s his way of countering multi-culturalism) The armed forces have had the word “Royal” added to their titles and their Maple Leaf insignia replaced by the crown. Canadian Embassies have been instructed to hang portraits of her Majesty on their walls.

So I understand and almost forgive the Canadian and US media for going over the top, but not the media here.

Somewhere it was decided that the British were all-a-flutter over the royal baby. That became the story regardless of the facts, and nobody has listened to the public ever since.

Not even the Royal-obsessed Daily Mail or indeed the establishment-friendly Telegraph. Comments on their abundant royal baby pages suggest a certain indifference – at best – amongst their readers. At least amongst those bothering to write in.

The once avowedly republican Guardian clearly got the mysterious baby directive (email? telephone call? sofa conversation? Who knows…) stating that all of Britain would rejoice. But their extensive and largely glowing coverage was met by reader gripes about the cost of the royals and the predictable arguments about whether we’d all prefer a “President Blair”.

And what of the gushing torrent from the BBC – an organisation committed to (and largely practicing) balance and impartiality on all other issues? It may have looked like a throng of people outside Buckingham Palace but in the scheme of things, they were a tiny proportion of the population. Never mind. They were the people whose enthusiastic views were sought and put on air.

Where were the counter-views of the vast majority who, my unscientific online scan suggests, might wish the parents and child well but don’t want to hear much more about it. And where was the evidence of the waiting world and the global celebrations? (Pro forma and utterly predictable congratulations from foreign leaders aside)

I fear the already bruised BBC couldn’t face another walloping by the government or the right-wing press. With last year’s disastrous coverage of the Thames Jubilee Pageant still haunting minds, editors clearly swallowed the cool-aid and gave us wall-to-wall baby-happy TV.

So the official line was created. Britain was going nuts for the royal birth. The foreign media picked it up and told their audiences we were going nuts. The coverage on news channels abroad fuelled the frenzy here.

Nobody asked the public (I don’t mean the self-selecting palace visitors) what they thought. And when we told them via twitter or comments pages, they took no notice.

So much for user-driven content and interactivity. A cabal of Old Media decided the news line and then told us what we, the weary public, believed.

 

 

Making MINTs from BRICS

Indonesia rice harvest

      1. BBC R4 World Tonight Indonesia Report

Remember the BRICS? Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa were the future of the world economy once upon a time. Fast-growing countries with either abundant natural resources or vast forces of cheap labour (or both) and business-friendly governments happily creating middle class wealth.

You don’t hear so much about them these days. Slowing growth, regulatory problems, labour unrest and, in the case of Brazil, massive demonstrations on the streets have rather taken the shine off the BRICS.

So, enter the new darlings of the foreign investor community, the MINTs. 

I can’t speak for Mexico beyond the highly Americanised resorts (complete with their Walmarts and Sam’s Clubs) I’ve visited. I do wonder though about the wisdom of investing in a country where more than fifty thousand people (possibly double that) have died in the violent drugs wars of the past six years.

Nigeria’s not a place I know well either, though I’d think twice before setting up shop in a country with an increasingly violent al-Qaeda related insurgency in the north and decades of seething resentment in the oil-rich but corrupt south.

Turkey on the other hand always looked like a good bet. You couldn’t hear a word against it from the tourists at Istanbul’s chi chi restaurants and boutique hotels. Foreign investment doubled in the five years from 2007 as Turkey started to emulate the capitalist West.

But it all went a bit pear-shaped in last month’s unprecedented protests. Egged on by a belligerent Prime Minister, the police attacked demonstrators in a city centre park. The stock market plunged, and suddenly we all fell out of love with Turkey. It turned out they weren’t “people like us” after all.

So that leaves Indonesia – a place I do know quite a bit about having started my reporting career there as BBC correspondent 22 years ago. It’s a vast, complicated country. Not really a country at all given its stitched together diversity. For more detail and far better insight than I can ever deliver, read Elizabeth Pisani’s excellent blog and then the book she’s publishing next year.

In the meantime, here’s my  short overview of the economy of the world’s fourth biggest country.

      2. BBC R4 World Tonight Indonesia Report

And in case you’re wondering, no, I’m not rushing to invest in Indonesia just yet.


Renewing the BBC

At last, Lord Patten, Chairman of the BBC Trust, has said it.  The BBC needs a “radical structural overhaul”.

What took him so long?

Most organisations struggle when budgets shrink – especially if demand stays the same (or in the case of some parts of the BBC, rises).  Job cuts breed insecurity. Insecurity breeds timidity. Heavier workloads take their toll on rigour.

At a BBC consumed by the process of managing change, the struggle has been particularly acute over the past decade or so.

Out went much of the Human Resources support for programme makers. Next it was the dedicated finance teams. “Money should be targeted at programmes, not back office functions” –  a splendid principle but one applied so widely that creativity has been swamped by basic admin in recent years.

Editors who once dealt in ideas and programme content now spend their days on contracts, rotas and budgets. Producers who used to pride themselves on teasing information out of sources and contributors now have to dedicate as much time to booking taxis and studio lines.

Regular programme reviews have gone. There are still meetings, dozens of them in every department every day. But very few are focused purely on generating original material or providing critical feedback.

Instead, the participants “liaise.”

BBC staff now talk to themselves – endlessly, and mostly about process. It’s one of the by-products of the big push towards multi-media or cross-platform working. That a feature for radio should be re-made for television and the web is an admirable resource-sharing notion (though it begs questions about the plurality of the BBC’s monolithic output).

But it has become a dangerous obsession at the BBC. So much so that whole new sections have sprung up to coordinate the output and discuss it with other planners.

One example: Recently, after I’d completed a radio documentary, I asked a planner if I should write it up as an article for BBC Online. Then I watched, astonished, as he got up from his seat, crossed the room and relayed my suggestion to an Online section editor. An email then arrived in my inbox reporting the results of the planner’s liaising back to me.

This is not a criticism of any individual. But the planners and coordinators need to be managed. The Hydra grows another head. Then the heads liaise.

Except of course they don’t share the juicy bits. The only thing worse than being scooped by a rival news organisation is having your story poached within the BBC.

That adds to the insecurity. So does the diffusion of accountability. “Audiences come first” staff are told repeatedly. They don’t though – not when there’s a salivating press (and not just the Murdoch papers), growing commercial pressures and a highly critical government to appease.

So the heads tend to focus upwards – on their bosses and what they want – rather than downwards, at the work itself. A programme is judged a success not by its content but by how many platforms it was broadcast on. It’s declared a triumph if the idea originated from above – even if all the staff know the show’s not up to scratch.

George Entwistle, for all that he is a decent man, was a product of a system in which process was everything and careers were built on performance at high-profile meetings.  I suspect the Editor in Chief stopped thinking like a journalist years ago.

So yes, a radical overhaul is needed. Re-arranging the deck chairs will not be enough this time.

Departments should be slimmed down. Out should go anyone not directly involved in getting programmes on air. Producers and reporters should do the liaising as a matter of course. That’s what the new offices at Broadcasting House are beautifully designed for.

If sections are to be smaller they are going to have to be better at what they do (and yes, there are staff who should go – a minority, but it has to be said). Journalists should be supported by highly efficient administrative operations so they can get on with their jobs.

The multi-platform imperative has to be re-thought. Journalists shouldn’t spend all their time re-packaging stories. They need to be out digging for the next ones.

Above all, senior staff must be free to edit well rather than manage badly – which is too often the case these days.

Fortunately, the BBC is still home to enough journalists who care hugely about what they do and who want to get it right. A radical overhaul should be aimed specifically at supporting and encouraging them. And if that means slaying some sacred cows (flag-ship programmes, presenters, under performing TV and radio channels – everything should be on the table) so be it.

From disaster comes opportunity: this is the moment to re-think the best news organisation in the world.

 

 

Lessons from the Savile saga

(First posted October 2012)

Stoke Mandeville hospital is being urged to open one. The BBC’s already started two. There’s another at the Department of Health.

The inquiries into Jimmy Savile’s abuse of children are mushrooming almost as fast as the sickening stories of what the TV showman did to dozens of teenaged girls (and, reportedly, some boys too.)

Still the Labour party wants more: one big, over-arching, independent inquiry into what Ed Miliband rightly called the “horrific allegations.” Putting aside the Labour leader’s knee-jerk inquiry-itis, he – like the BBC and all the others now investigating the past – is missing an important point.

Why was one man able to get away with abusing young people for so long? Because, as some of the victims have said, he told them if they raised the alarm and ratted on “King Jimmy” they would not be believed.

And he was right.

While 58% of rape cases that make it to court result in a conviction (not all for rape, sometimes for a lesser offence) only 13% of rapes recorded by the police end in any kind of conviction at all.

Convictions for sex offences against those under 18 are going up, but they still account for less than 10% of the total recorded by the police. (And I’m talking about the ones who report the allegations. Surveys suggest 34% of 11-17 year olds who’ve been abused by an adult do not tell anyone at all about it.)

Why? Well you could ask one of the 15 year olds raped repeatedly by the notorious Rochdale grooming gang. She told the police what had been going on and they believed her. But the Chief Prosecutor in the area decided “she would not be viewed as a credible witness by a jury” and shelved the case. The abuse continued.

“Not a credible witness.” As any reporter (myself included) who’s covered stories of alleged sexual abuse knows, that simple phrase can kill a journalistic investigation stone dead. It goes hand in hand with demands by victims for anonymity – completely understandable but tricky when building a bullet-proof case.

And what does “credible mean?” Well, for a case to get as far as a court room, prosecutors must be satisfied “there is evidence to provide a realistic prospect of conviction” In sex abuse cases that’s hard because usually the only witnesses are the victim and the perpetrator.

In incidents involving children or teenagers it’s even harder. They will be asked detailed questions in court and, usually traumatised, will fail to remember dates, times, places and other details that the defence will almost certainly demand. Telling the truth is one thing, doing it “credibly” is another.

Then there are those whose very vulnerability is what led to them being preyed on in the first place. Jimmy Savile is accused of exploiting several young people who turned up for his TV shows. That’s opportunism, but there’s a calculated cunning in the stories of his prowling the corridors of Stoke Mandeville and Broadmoor hospitals.

And let’s not forget the special “treats” he distributed when he rolled up to Duncroft Approved School for “disturbed girls.” As at least one of the pupils there has now said, they reported the abuse to school authorities but were told to hush their filthy mouths. How could they be believed – Jimmy was a star, while they were just “disturbed.”

How could a Rochdale teenager be believed when her violent and degrading sexual history meant (according to some social workers) she was clearly on the game? Several of the other teenagers came from chaotic families or were living in care. Meaning nobody much cared when police and social workers decided it was a “lifestyle choice” for a kid to hang out with older, abusive men.

The vulnerable are by no means the only people ever abused but they are often the easy targets. And the same factors that make them vulnerable, make them difficult to believe in the cut and thrust of our adversarial courts.

Of course, it’s right as a principle that the Crown Prosecution Service should need solid evidence to bring a case. That’s how our justice system works. In criminal trials the individual is assumed innocent and the far more powerful state has to prove beyond reasonable doubt that they’re not.

But as Jimmy Savile proved, sometimes it’s the individual who’s got the power. The state is weak and that weakness means the victims are failed.

So should we change the rules of evidence in sex abuse cases? Educate juries about credibility and vulnerability? Improve police, prosecution and social work training and skills so that the abused are listened to, supported and given a more powerful voice?

There are many questions (and I haven’t even touched on a celebrity culture that puts creeps like Savile on a pedestal nor on his aggressive use of charity as a weapon to keep him there.)

As for answers, they won’t be found in the endless inquiries of institutions guilt-ridden at being duped by an exploitative man.

What we need is a task force, a commission or a national debate to put right a system and a culture that repeatedly fails the powerless.

Goodbye Bush House

Photo:Bogdan Frymorgen

 Long before globalisation, there was Bush House.

Home to the BBC World Service – grand in parts, beautiful in its own labyrinthine way, Bush House nurtured multiple languages and cultures for more than seventy years.

That is now over.

On Friday the last of the language services left for the purpose-built news centre in new Broadcasting House. Overnight, English current affairs programmes completed their move. When the final radio news bulletin goes out to the world on July the 12th, that’ll be it. The end of a broadcasting era – and possibly of much more too.

Of course, the BBC World Service goes on.  Animated Russians spill out of studios a few kilometres across town.  Indonesians smoke pungent clove cigarettes in Portland Place instead of the Strand.  They’re working out of a first class, brand new broadcasting centre so let’s put sentimentality about an old building aside.

photo:Bogdan Frymorgen

But Bush House was always much more than its marble-clad staircases, cluttered offices and art deco halls.  Even within the sometimes haughty circles of the far bigger domestic BBC (and certainly amongst its competitors) “Bush” was respected as an ethos as much as a place: the embodiment of thoughtful, outward looking journalism and a hub of international expertise.

Will that survive as the World Service moves in to new Broadcasting House with the rest of the London-based BBC?  If this were just a physical move, I’d give it more than a fighting chance.  But the emptying of Bush House coincides with the slashing of World Service budgets – and more. The Foreign Office, once its funder and protector, is casting the corporation’s international arm adrift, leaving it to sink or swim inside an embattled BBC that’s in no position to be generous.  

The changes were announced in late 2010 when the World Service was adapting to ever smaller budgets. Suddenly the new Conservative government demanded further savings – of 16%.  Five language services closed almost immediately. Radio broadcasts in seven others (including Russian and Chinese) stopped (they’re mostly online services now, there’s also Russian TV). Shortwave signals in six more were switched off.  The BBC’s only daily English language programme dedicated to European news disappeared.

Those were the headlines – and they were met with an outcry from Members of Parliament of various shades – but there were many other casualties: an editor here, a producer there. A researcher seat suddenly empty, fewer slots for original documentaries, more repeats. And, perhaps most ominous, the letting go of the experts. Off went the China, Russia and Central Asia specialists. The brilliant Arab analyst Magdi Abdelhadi left – right in the middle of the Arab Spring.  These were people you could call on at a minute’s notice to deliver live analysis on air. As a former presenter, I can’t count the number of times I leant on their insight and expertise. Their jobs no longer exist.

photo:Bogdan Frymorgen

There are of course still many people within the World Service with extraordinary knowledge and a real interest in the forgotten as well as the more commonly reported parts of the world. They are amongst the BBC’s greatest assets, the staff who lend authority and credibility to BBC news and current affairs. But for how much longer?

In that same spending review, the Foreign Office announced that from 2014 it would no longer fund the World Service through a grant-in-aid. It’ll be paid for through the television licence fee, just like any other part of the BBC.

Except of course it’s not like any other part of the BBC.  While up to two million people a week do listen to World Service English radio programmes in the UK, that’s not who the broadcasts are meant for. Everything World Service radio does is directed at its 180 million strong audiences abroad. When it comes to deciding whose needs and wants come first there’s no way the BBC bosses, answerable to the licence fee payer at home, can put the foreigners anywhere near the top of the list.

Promises have been made about budgets being protected. Affectionate lip service has been paid to the importance of the World Service. Even the Foreign Secretary William Hague, who was responsible for the savage cuts (far bigger than in any other part of the foreign office budget) and the sudden funding change, thinks the World Service “should remain an articulate and powerful voice for Britain in the world, and a trusted provider of impartial and independent news.”

That’s good of him. I’m not sure how it’ll happen without real commitment from government, and from the top of the BBC. There must be a recognition that the Bush House ethos, even without Bush House, must be kept alive.  They could start by explaining to the British public why the World Service is worth paying for.  It is, after all Britian’s most successful export, one of the few institutions bar the Monarchy that provokes both affection and respect for this country overseas.

The World Service has lost resources and its much loved home; by 2014 it will have lost a quarter of its staff and its traditional source of funding.  Yes there will be benefits from working more closely with colleagues from other departments day to day. But there are also threats. You can’t blame the incredibly dedicated World Service staff for worrying that they are about to be swallowed up by the domestic-facing BBC.

“Nation shall speak peace unto nation” is the BBC’s motto. And so it shall.  But the respected voice of this nation is already getting fainter. With the closing of Bush House,  it’s going to need all the help it can get to be heard. 

 (You can see more of Bogdan’s pictures of Bush House on facebook or at www.frymorgen.com)