The BBC’s Malcolm Brabant has been an excellent commentator for nearly a decade from Greece. He has been someone the BEEB could parachute virtually anywhere in North Africa, the Middle East or the Med region to get some solid reporting. He is also a fun man to have a beer with. The Daily Mail has a saddening first-person account by Malcolm of the psychotic consequences of a Yellow Fever jab that has gone very bad for him.
The British media is just getting sillier. I wasn’t sure it was possible but after watching and reading the coverage this week of Tony Blair’s memoirs and of the gay rumors swirling around the Foreign Secretary William Hague that is the only conclusion I can reach.
On Blair, the U.K. media has been focused mainly on the former Prime Minister’s disclosures about how poor his relationship was with the dour and obsessed Gordon Brown, his grim-faced Chancellor of the Exchequer. Poor old Tony had to put up with constant conpsiring by Brown and his gang – allegedly Brown even triggered the party investigation into the money-for-honors scandal that dogged 18 months of Blair’s premiership. Some commentators rightly castigated Blair for his playing the victim in his memoirs – ye Gods, he was the Prime Minister and should have sacked Brown.
But the news pages have been taken the Blair claims far too seriously instead of questioning far more strongly whether the former Prime Minister should be writing in the vein he does. Virtually all politeness and conventional form have been thrown out in the book by Blair – he dishes on former colleagues, reveals private conversations with members of the Royal family, etc. One expects this kind of thing from Labour’s gosipy “prince of darkness” Peter Mandelson but should a former Prime Minister be writing in this way?
Blair has produced a “soap book” — not a serious, substantial tome. His chapter on Iraq – and his refusal to accept that he and Bush made any mistakes – should have been the media focus and not the “Brown was mean to me” stuff.
And Hague? After putting up with weeks of a semi-public media whispering campaign, Hague decided earlier this week to rebut blog-launched allegations that he had slept with a male aide. To add credence to his rebutal he went into detail about the difficulties he and his wife have been facing in trying to conceive a child. Now the poor man has to put up with claims that his denial is a public relations blunder – too much information, according to The Times.
The BBC has been running the Hague story as its second lead most of the day with news anchors questioning public relations “experts” and spin-doctors. Sheila Gunn, a former colleague on The Times and now a political consultant, argued that Hague has just prolonged the story by “giving it oxygen.”
Well, it didn’t need any external oxygen before – the blogger Guido just carried on making the allegations with nothing to go on except a photograph showing the aide and Hague walking along the street dressed GQ casual and smiling and the fact – not connected with the picture — that during the election campaign they shared a room with twin beds in it. And with nothing to go on now, the media is keeping the gay allegations going by questioning the public relations efficacy of his denial. And this is journalism?
Hague was utterly right to issue a denial and I don’t see how disclosing the problems he and his wife are facing in trying to create a family will do him any harm with the public. As the newspapers watch their circulations decline — and as the BBC watches its standing fall — maybe they should all rethink how they cover the news.
CNN International has now some rivals in terms of human-focused TV coverage of the consequences of the Haiti earthquake. BBC World News has had some tremendous pieces in the last 24 hours including a feature on a pregnant woman who was helped to a hospital by the BBC crew and gave birth – two lives in the balance and they came through. CNN International has been using its web site effectively by creatively explaining how ordinary people can have an impact on the crisis with donations.
Fox News had an excellent feature from Jonathan Hunt graphically illustrating how the earthquake has impacted the government of the country with shots of destroyed government buildings. Hunt pointed out that no one knows how many members of the legislative assembly are dead or buried in the rubble.
Aid logistics remain a problem – as does overall coordinated leadership – but the BBC and others now seem to appreciate the scale of the tragedy and the huge challenges posed. They are being less knee-jerk and more thoughtful in their coverage of the aid problems.
One striking thing in this crisis, though, is how the UN leadership has failed to be proactive in explaining what they are doing and what efforts arte being made to coordinate and prioritize. Why no morning press conference in Haiti by top UN communicators? Why no thoughtful daily messaging?
Most senior UN spokespeople appearing on television are not even based in Haiti but are in Switzerland or New York and seem not to be coordinating the information they are putting out and are very light on real-time details. As ever the UN is naïve in its public and media relations work, allowing others to define the space.
How depressing the UK and US TV news coverage has been of the Haitian earthquake – and I don’t just mean of the human tragedy of the disaster. US channels, led by Fox, have covered the horror through the prism of American domestic politics, focusing this weekend on why President Obama called in both of his predecessors. He must have some underhand reason for doing so is Fox’s assertion.
The BBC and Sky liked to cover everything with the sub-text of how bad the international organizations are performing. Aid not getting through. A lack of coordination between the aid agencies. And this from news organizations based in a country that collapses when there is half-a-foot of snow!
There was, in short, a tremendous absence of mature judgment in the coverage. Few reporters offered serious analysis of the logistical nightmare it is to cope with an earthquake of this scale in such a poor country. The distances involved. The consequences of a country losing a functioning government. A port that is hardly operating, A one-runway airport trying to cope with huge traffic without a control tower, etc. The standards of journalism just fall and fall. Obviously there are criticisms to be made of the coordination but the focus just on this detracts from the extraordinary efforts of aid workers and organisations and the ignores the heroism of rescuers and survivors alike.
Too many of the journalists thrown in appear to lack experience and have no stories to compare. And the profession as whole is determined to analyse (without judgment and maturity) and they forget that they are at root just story-tellers and reporters. The superior attitude of BBC journalists is just totally insufferable. Interestingly, the BBC reporters tended to stick close to the airport and not travel as much as journalists from some other news outlets.
By far and away the best practical coverage came from CNN International, which while acknowledging the frustrations of the survivors, preferred to explore the practical and threw up individual stories. CNN International journalists spent less time on making assertions and apportioning blame and more time on securing actual detailed stories. One report focused on a supermarket and looked at the challenges of digging people out, explored who the rescuers were and the people who were rescued. Their reporters seemed to understand that the scale of the tragedy would throw off any aid effort.
Al Jazeera was also disappointing. Normally the outlet performs well with on-the-ground reporting, although admittedly in its home region of the Middle East or in the nearby Indian sub-continent. This time it kept on securing the services of obscure academics to debate in the studio whether the Americans are good or bad guys.
So my plea to my former colleagues is tell me the story and leave out your pre-programmed ideology, please. And I have another suggestion. Every journalist should be required to leave the profession for a year or so every few years to do a job outside journalism. It would inform their reporting tremendously when they returned. Otherwise we are going to rely increasingly on citizen journalism via social media technology to get the facts.