Dismal quality of BBC TV news

by Chris Chant on 27/12/2010

I was brought up in East Africa in the late 1940s and during the 1950s. Every evening we listed to the news from ‘home’ on the BBC World Service, and this conditioned me to a high quality of spoken English and a news coverage that was both balanced and comprehensive. My parents returned to the UK in the early 1960s and settled down to a typical pattern of British middle class existence, including a switch from the BBC news on the radio to that on the TV. From the early 1960s, though, I lost touch with news coverage at school and later at university and the start of my working life, in which there was no TV and indeed little time or inclination for the news.

Only when I married in the late 1970s and settled to a more domestic life did I acquire a TV and once again start to watch the TV news. As an inherited factor, I suppose, my default source for the news was the BCC, but I soon started to become disenchanted with this. I don’t know if it was I or the BBC that was more largely responsible, but I began to feel that the BBC was losing touch with its remit to broadcast news, and had instead embarked on the process of transmitting what we today call ‘sound bites’ that have steadily become ever more heavily laden with personal views and a whole mass of irrelevant material. At much the same time there seemed to have begun the process of divorcing the news, in common with much of the BBC’s other speech programming, from ‘received English’ pronunciation and enunciation. I have no objection in general to regional and, dare one say it, class variations of accent and dialect, but the task of news programmes is to disseminate the news in an intelligible form, and this fact has become increasingly lost in the politically correct replacement of spoken English, whether on TV or radio, to a different common denominator in which it it is permissible to say, for example, ‘infer’ rather than ‘imply’, ‘owing to’ rather than ‘as a result of’, and ‘over’ rather than ‘about’. Add to this the appallingly wrong use of ‘hopefully’ and other such adverbs (‘What are these?’, one can almost imagine the BBC’s editorial terms asking), the increasing loss of the passive voice, the use of transitive verbs as intransitive verbs and vice versa, and the the ever-increasing appearance of essentially meaningless jargon phrases such as ‘going forward’ when there is absolutely nothing wrong with ‘in the future’.

These and a host of other similar horrors combine to make the news ever more imprecise and ever less intelligible. Add to this factor the increasing emphasis on sports news and stories about ‘celebrities’ (in nine out of 10 cases wholly unknown to me, I readily admit, and presumably associated with nonce ephemera such as pop music and other entertainment media), and the BBC TV news seems to have lost touch with what is important in the concept of the news. In this respect the BBC TV news has switched from being The Times to the Daily Mirror of broadcast news in its desire to make itself more popular and ‘accessible’.

There has also been a significant degradation of the editorial concept behind the news, with a completely unnecessary quantity of repetition. This convinces me that the BBC believes that its average viewer has the legendary attention span of a goldfish or, as I believe, the average American.

Take the main early evening news at six o’clock on BBC1 and imagine, if you will, a day on which there has been a murder in Glasgow (there’s a novelty!). The news reader starts with this information and a couple of other items, and then embarks on the ‘meat’ of the news with the information that there has been a grisly murder in Glasgow, where members of the community have been ‘shock horrored’. The news reader then transfers the item to a local reporter, who starts with the information that there has been a gruesome murder that the police are investigating (what a surprise!) and which has shocked members of the community (cut to a ‘vox pop’ interview with a typical resident who says that he or she is shocked that such as thing could have happened and adds that he or she saw the police arriving to start their investigation). The local reporter then speaks to a member of the police, who delivers himself or herself of the opinion, in ponderous police-speak, that the police are investigating and are pursuing several lines of investigation. As often as not the local reporter then summarises the above, and returns the viewer to the studio.

In the studio the news reader repeats the fact of the murder at quarter past six, and then concludes the programme at half past six with the same thing again. This means that the viewer has been told essentially the same thing at least four, and possibly as many as six, times within 30 minutes. Then the main news is followed by the local news, which rehashes the same item in much the same way and, indeed, often with the same interviews.

This is plainly wrong in basic editorial terms. For a start it makes extensive use of visual material in a story that is is no way visual, suggesting that this is merely an example of ‘we have the technology so we’ll use it’. At the same time it wastes much time that could profitably be used for other news items. It means the costly despatch of a local news team (reporter, camera operator, sound recordist, etc?) to add nothing to the basic news items even after their material has been edited in the local news studio. Finally, what conceivable interest is there in the fact that a local resident had been horrified by the course of recent events? The only thing that would justify any such ‘vox pop’ interview would be the resident’s delivery of an opinion that the murder was an excellent thing as the dead person was a drug dealer/mugger/child molester/tormentor of pensioners etc.

Replace the murder with a train or aeroplane crash, sporting ‘disaster’, or adverse weather all presented along basically similar lines, and there you have the guts of the BBC TV news, which will then over-emphasise the story for days to come: what, after several weeks of very cold weather, can be added to our overall stock of knowledge by the tenth interview with a stranded traveller who is upset about the fact?

I have the feeling that the ITV news may be similar, but the Channel 4 news does appear to be significantly better structured in basic editorial terms.

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