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.

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