Tuesday, 20 January 2009

The Obama Effect

According to Polly Toynbee, people like me are part of 'lazy cynical Britain', not because we can't remember what we were doing today, but because the reason we can remember isn't that we were thinking about Obama's inauguration every second of the day. The whole 'everyone remembers where they were when...' meme is more than a little irritating.

From Diana to Obama

I remember where I was when Princess Diana died: I was fast asleep in bed, and when I woke up and trundled downstairs for breakfast, my parents delivered the news in tones of disbelief. My first thought was that it was sad, especially for her kids, but my first act was still to make my breakfast. I just don't seem to have the capacity for affective self-projection into a group emotion.

The same is true of the Obama Effect. There's no arguing with two million spectators; Obama is an indubitable crowd-puller, which is definitely an improvement on an intern-puller. It's not even that I'm unimpressed by Mr Obama, merely that I am not prone, by dint of his inspirational sermonising, to partake in fits of shared delirium. I admit that I feel a spine-tingle when he really gets the rhetoric right, so I guess I see the emotional point-of-departure, but I am perhaps simply too much of a realist cynic to be carried away before I have seen how things develop.

Creusa Ineluctabile

I am posting Cassandra-lite: no bitching nor premonitions, just a lugubrious sense of reality, premised in the hunch that things generally turn out less impressively than we hoped for. As another inspirational President might have been told by a contemporary Prime Minister: 'Events dear boy, events.'

Sunday, 11 January 2009

Manufacturing Offense

Two of the biggest news stories of the weekend were a) the internet broadcast of a video in which Prince Harry is reportedly seen making racist comments and b) the dismissal of a Tory activist for his alleged attendance of a 'bad taste' party whilst dressed as Madeleine McCann.

Both are pretty shocking, and call into question the good judgment of two figures who lead, or aspire to lead, public lives in full view of an aggressive media. I can't help, however, but feel slightly cynical about the faux-outrage unleashed by newspapers: if their objective was to spare the feelings of the McCann family, or to avoid causing a race-relations controversy, you might think they'd spike the stories as a mark of respect and sign of prudent restraint. If, on the other hand, they want to sell newspapers by printing 'sensational' stories, whatever the consequences, then print-and-be-damned is the mantra.

I suppose self-restraint and prudence are unreasonable expectations to have of newspaper editors; how likely is it that journalists are sufficiently self-aware to notice, or sufficiently human to care about, instances when their own coverage becomes part of the story? The McCanns would not have been "appalled" if the 'bad taste' party had remained what it presumably was intended to be, viz. a private affair. Likewise, no such controversy would have been generated by Prince Harry had his remarks remained private.

The self-censorship of good judgment could, if excercised by newspaper editors, do much to reduce the flash-points and blow-ups in daily life. Before they lazily invoke the Public Interest, they should consider the difference between something in which the public may be interested, and something legitimately in the Public Interest.

Sunday, 4 January 2009

New Year, old BBC

Christmas spent watching the telly...

I spent the vacation with my extended family, always a dead cert for entertainment and no dull moments. Family politics aside, my family, like most normal people, own a television. I don't. So what struck me most over the festive period was the editorial policy of BBC television news. Take any twenty-hour period over Christmas and there were several interesting international stories completely ignored by the BBC in favour of very uninteresting, but supposedly more relevantly British content. Africa alone experienced one new coup d'etat (Guinea); the on-going fall-out from a recent coup (Mauritania), and - it goes without saying (for BBC News at any rate) several long-running conflicts across the continent.

Eyeless outside Gaza?

Whilst the BBC reacts quickly to developments in Gaza, its unwillingness to devote airtime to other stories is curious. Are viewers really more interested in Gaza than, say, the Congo? I suspect that only small pockets of viewers harbour strong preferences either way. Given that, and given the unparalleled (and expensive) global reach of the BBC's news collection system, there is a great opportunity to add breadth to the content of flagship BBC News bulletins. Nowhere is this more obvious than on the BBC News website.

Sack the editors, use a randomizer!

Try a quick thought-experiment: For the next five days the BBC suspends its present editorial policy and populates its 6 o'clock and 10 o'clock news bulletins with stories generated randomly from all sections of the BBC News website. Instead of daily coverage of new raids on Gaza, stories are broadcast on the Ghanaian elections, the Guinean coup, Belgium's problems finding a new government, and maybe one of the nanotechnology stories currently in the 'Health' and 'Technology' sections of the website?

Would the broadcasts during this counter-factual week serve the BBC's objectives better or worse than the likely diet of yet more news from Gaza? I am not saying that the Gaza story is unimportant, merely that its virtual monopoly of the international news section, and of the rolling news of BBC News 24, is scarcely justified when plenty of other stories are equally 'important.' The best justification for the considerable cost of the BBC's global network of correspondents is that it provides an opportunity for regular updates on situations all across the globe. Instead, however, it appears to mean in practice that the BBC can supply a brief period of blanket coverage for an 'extraordinary' situation, quickly lapsing into customary neglect when editors judge that 'normal and uninteresting' business has resumed. This is an indictably sad state of affairs, a real missed opportunity to justify by broad and educative coverage the substantial cost of BBC production. The BBC has a responsibility to serve all its viewers; a more democratic, i.e. a more random, approach to editorial policy may well be salutary.