Reflections on a year in broadcasting

Image copyright ENB/BBC
Image caption Amol Rajan reflects on a year as the BBC’s first media editor

I joined the BBC as its first media editor a year ago today. Here are six reflections on the broadcasting industry from someone who came across from the world of print.

I don’t care if they sound naive. In fact, that’s kind of the point.

1/ Gathering News for broadcast takes ages

When you’re writing an article for a website or newspaper, and want to get a quote on the record from a source, you just ring them up, take the words down, and then publish it. In television, even more so than radio, you have to get it all on camera. It turns out this is a rather laborious process.

In one of my first reports for the News at Ten, I revealed Arron Banks, the Leave.EU funder, was moving into media with an investment in the website Westmonster.

To get him to explain this on camera, a producer colleague and I had to get the train to Bristol, book a local camera man, get a taxi to his office on the outskirts of the city, spend 10 minutes setting the interview up (there’s a reason they say “lights, camera, action”), film the interview, film a couple of reverse shots of me for editing purposes, make idle talk as the camera man took down the lights, get a cab back to Bristol station, get the train back to London, peg it back to New Broadcasting House, watch the interview, and pull out the best clips.

The whole thing took about five and a half hours, rather than five and a half minutes on the phone. We used just over 20 seconds.

That’s the thing about telly: the pictures are the boss. You might want to say something fancy and clever, but if you haven’t got the pictures, you’re saying nowt…

2/ Producers and camera operators are the real heroes

…Which is why the real heroes are the people that turn ideas into actual television and radio. I’m not saying this to be self-effacing. It’s really true.

Say something big happens: a statue of Saddam Hussein is brought down, for instance. If the reporter isn’t there, they can get to the scene later. Not ideal, but they’ll still get on the news. But if the camera operator isn’t there, you have no pictures. You’re stuffed.

It is a curious thing that, because reporters are on screen and often become famous, with egos to match, they are occasionally treated as deities both inside and outside their organisations. The really cool thing about making packages for the news, however, is that you work in a small team: reporter, producer and camera operator. Within this team, the reporters are the least important. Necessary, but the least important. It’s a three-legged stool, basically: each leg matters, but if you had to lose one leg, it would be the reporter.

In my ignorance of broadcasting, I didn’t know much about producers before I joined. Just as sub-editors are the real heroes of newspapers – working all hours and never leaving the office; exercising the sharpest minds; upholding standards; never getting credit for spotting awful mistakes, but always getting the blame for cock-ups – so producers are the people who turn pompous ideas from the likes of me into actual television.

Image caption Amol Rajan and media producer Elizabeth Needham-Bennett at BBC Elstree on election night.

Their job is partly logistical, but it is also very editorial: thinking about the shape and content of a story. I used to say to student journalists that getting a job as a sub-editor is a great way in. I would now add that, if broadcast is your thing, getting work as a producer is hugely worthwhile.

I have worked with outstanding journalists who, because they are producers, get no public credit. So let me here name my two exceptional colleagues in BBC News: Dominic Hurst and Elizabeth Needham-Bennett.

3/ The poor have no lobby in broadcasting

By far the most depressing thing about this year has been seeing the capture of the broadcasting industry by middle-class professionals, and the disconnect with the lives of the poor. New technologies and platforms have allowed vloggers and podcasters from poor backgrounds to join the party. For the most part, in my experience, traditional broadcasters aren’t suffused with working class experience. (I’m intentionally using “working class” and “poor” interchangeably here.)

Other disenfranchised groups have highly organised and effective lobbying operations. I hope readers – and indeed those lobbyists – will understand why, as someone who has to report on the subject, I’m not going to pronounce here on the gender pay gap, or ethnic minority representation, for instance. But it can be taken as read that as someone who thinks the BBC should exist and function well, I think it ought to reflect the country properly.

On gender equality, there is a very active group promoting female employees at the BBC and outside. Across the industry, some top jobs (for instance at ITV and Channel 4) are going to women (not enough, campaigners would argue). It’s too slow for some, but change is happening.

On diversity, campaigning by the likes of Lenny Henry and former RTS boss Simon Albury has had an impact. Again, as with gender equality, I’m not really taking a position here, just observing that stuff is happening (not enough stuff, campaigners would argue).

On London, my sense is that broadcasting’s version of devolution has some way to go, but with talk of Channel 4 relocating, and having reported on the BBC’s local radio output, it feels as if there is at least some challenge to London’s hegemony in media (not enough, non-Londoners would argue).

But who is sticking up for the poor? Where is the lobby group that vets appointments to ensure those from working-class backgrounds, who don’t have the social capital and connections of their richer peers, are getting a fair shot – whether on the airwaves or off?

Call me naïve – and I admitted at the outset that I am – but even this gnarled veteran of media has been taken aback by the paucity of people from poor backgrounds working in the industry. I thought was interesting.

Doubtless when this article is published I will be clobbered by various people explaining how they have made representations to improve the situation. So let me just distil the above into one, very strong impression I get from the past 12 months: a lot of British broadcasting is talking about and to poor people, rather than for and with them.

4/ Audio has a unique power to inspire action – and news

I didn’t really grow up listening to the radio, but have fallen in love with the medium, and become a podcast fanatic. Something I just wasn’t aware of, because it seemed almost counter-intuitive, is that radio can stir the passions almost more than TV.

Perhaps this is a subjective thing, but I remember doing a phone-in about sexual abuse on the BBC Asian Network’s The Big Debate, and someone confessed to being abused as a child. Then the phones starting ringing off the hook.

Something about the possibility of anonymity prompted an amazing response. I’m not sure TV could have done that – though obviously I don’t doubt its power to connect emotionally.

Audio can create a magical intimacy, a feeling of eavesdropping on a conversation, and being privileged to be there. And because it is often less practically demanding than television, it offers the possibility of a clubbable, kind tone which often makes for better, more news-generating interviews than the confrontational arena of a TV studio.

It ought not to surprise us that the most effective question asked by a political interviewer this year was Iain Dale asking Theresa May if she’d now vote for Brexit. A viral, video clip: but he asked it politely, in a radio studio.

5/ Fake news isn’t the big problem in news. The big problem in news is…the news

I’ve written several blogs here about fake news, a phenomenon whose supposed rise has coincided with my time as media editor. Correlation not causation, let me assure you.

In summary: fake news is nothing new, though technology has allowed it to be disseminated further and faster than ever; its prevalence in Britain is unclear; and many of those who bang on about it, from politicians to the mainstream media, have an incentive to inflate the threat.

It’s also a distraction from the real issues, which are the editorial selections and judgements that comprise the news. Getting news right – choosing which stories to cover, and how to cover them – is a constant challenge. No programme editor ever goes to bed thinking “We got everything right today”.

But doing the stories that really matter, and getting them right, is a much bigger challenge to the integrity of news in Britain than the alleged threat from fake news.

6/ The BBC’s biggest challenge is technological

The BBC faces a vast array of challenges, varying from the cyclical, structural and predictable to day-by-day surprises. These include a financial challenge – saving hundreds of millions of pounds – to a political one: justifying thousands of editorial decisions every day to a hostile political class, in a time of renewed ideological divisions, Brexit, and ferocious social media.

Image copyright ENB/BBC
Image caption BBC cameraman Carl Ward films with Amol Rajan at the offices of The Crown’s executive producer Andy Harries

But the biggest challenge is technology. By this I don’t even mean the sudden, booming incursion into quality content of Netflix, Amazon, Apple and so on.

Though it’s worth remembering that, for most of the near century the BBC has been going, it had a dominant position in the field of media that it is now losing. The commissioners and film-makers of yesteryear, many of whom are happy to opine on where the BBC is going wrong today, didn’t have to worry that their six-part drama would end up on Netflix, which had twice the budget.

No, the real technological challenge the BBC faces is the shift to mobile.

Luckily there is a very strong team working on this. But the scale of the task it faces was made very clear to me on a couple of visits to schools. Those of you who are parents with teenagers may not be surprised to hear this, but the fact that these future licence fee payers are spending five or six hours a day on their mobiles – and most of that time on Snapchat – is a social revolution with huge implications for the BBC.

Unlike commercial publishers, the corporation has to give old people what they want too. The average BBC One and BBC Two viewer is in their 60s; and it is true that millions of young people tuned in to watch the likes of Blue Planet or Strictly Come Dancing.

But just as newspaper executives are still driven to distraction by the daily circulation figures, so the BBC’s output and resources are largely geared to those who look at the “overnights” – that morning bulletin that says how your programme rated the previous night. These show a long-term trend similar, but slower, to that of newspaper circulation: relentless decline.

The shift to mobile is a huge task for all media – but especially the BBC.

  • These are just some reflections from a fun year in broadcasting. As I tweeted earlier, I genuinely hope licence fee payers – my bosses – have found some of my work useful or interesting, and value for money.

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