Sunday, June 08, 2014

Robert Peston: 'BBC follows the Daily Mail’s lead too much' . But why is that? former Newsnight researcher reports

Reports on newspapers adopting the web in 1995

The Guardian headline ran:

"Robert Peston: BBC follows the Daily Mail's lead too much".  It went on "Corporations editors have a 'safety first' attitude and are obsessed with newspapers' agendas, says economics editor".

Peston was speaking at an event organised by British Journalism Review and the University of Westminster, where I teach, and his observations seem to have caught the wind in its sails.

Peston's remarks and reasons are salient, but some crucial points are missed in the Guardian piece that explains not only why the BBC relies on newspapers, such as The Daily Mail, but why broadcast journalism relies on newspapers.

I was a researcher on the BBC's flagship news programme back in 1991 when the then editor Tim Gardam asked his editorial team to look further than the political village of westminster for its stories. 

To do this he requested the programme search through provincial newspapers for its news.The advice had purpose. One of the biggest child abuse scandals in Frank Beck from Leicester was running.

I had just joined Newsnight from working at BBC Radio Leicester and the Frank Beck case was a regular feature of Leicester's newspaper, The Leicester Mercury.

I was struck by what Gardam said. I wasn't that naive; at BBC Radio Leicester newspaper cuttings were one of the main sources for news.

In 1991, three years before the net would become commercial and even when it did, up to 1998, if you wanted to research your news, you'd walk up to a designated room called "newspaper cuttings" to order a folder of newspaper stories on the subject you were producing.

It seems antiquated now, but there was no other way of collating material: a group of researcher sat in a room and scoured the newspapers cataloging the stories.

However, the reliance of broadcasting on newspapers is a relationship that goes back much further than 1998 to the structural formation of broadcast news in the 1950s.

Firstly, BBC Journalism was founded on hiring personnel from the newspapers, but secondly, equally if not more important, broadcast journalism makes no provision for its journalists to replicate the 'beat' format of print journalism.

Whilst print journalists cultivate contacts, sometimes disappearing into communities (their beat) to gather and produce news, broadcasting could ill-afford this.

Economics plays a part. Broadcast news was made with five personnel crew. The same costs could be used to hire several specialist newspaper journalists who could rotate on a page to provide a continuous stream of news over week.

The structure of broadcast news is so time-sensitive compared with newspapers, that there was little time to research original stories on the day. Before the broadcast news team left the office, the news they were looking for had to be already 'packaged'. Newspapers provided them with that comfort.

In 1994,  a revolutionary cable station that I worked for, employing videojournalists broke this convention. For the first three months or so, 30 videojournalists were tasked with finding their own stories.

Many still used newspapers, magazines, the wires etc, but equally contacts in the community (the beat). But there was a problem? As the station's appetite for news increased, the flow of news could not, unless there was a repository of news ideas to pre-plan the next day's news. 

Channel One reverted to the tried and tested method of relying on newspaper cuttings. Interestingly, Channel One was owned by the Daily Mail and so the idea that the cable station could set its own agenda was a real prospect, if the station could get access to the Mail's news agenda.

Not a chance! The Evening Standard and Daily Mail scorned its sister broadcast outfit according to Channel One Managing Editor Julian Aston.

If anything this new relationship in broadcast outfits setting the news could be realised at the new London station, London Live, which works closer with its sister outfit The London Evening Standard that changed owners in 2009.

However a more realistic model is that the newspapers, now with their own Net broadcast strategies, not only set the agenda in print, but drive a web-news format as well. 

But as Peston notes too there is a proverbial catch 22. The BBC is damned if it breaks too free of the news agenda promulgated by those who get there first - the newspapers. It shoots itself too in the foot when it becomes too aligned to the newspaper agenda.

Peston's link between newspapers and the BBC seems ideological, but to a large extent it's also structural.

If the broadcast format changes, or broadcasters begin to recruit from a different pool and more reporters, you may see a difference.