Once, a long time ago, I was complaining about the “dull and predictable” agenda of a certain Radio Scotland news programme. It was a programme that had secretly earned itself the slogan “we tell you the news like it’s your fault”. Naturally the then editor was having none of this and fired back with his oft-repeated questions.
“What stories did we miss? What was in the papers today that we didn’t cover in the programme?”
That, of course, was the basis of my complaint; the similarity of the news agenda across print, radio and TV. It seemed then as now, like editors operated some kind of cartel system, carefully agreeing the type and number of stories that can be released to the public. Often you see the same stories approached in the same way and, if you switch TV channels, you see them running at the same time.
I’m not talking about the big events like natural disasters or acts of terrorism. Even anniversaries like the moon landing have their place. But it’s the other stuff: think-tank reports, surveys or even the way that bad weather events like snowfall get the same treatment: road chaos in Glasgow/Good news for skiers in the north. It perplexed me how the BBC, with its many hundreds of reporters, broadcast so few original stories. That perplexity resurfaced this week during a Twitter exchange with a complete stranger. Said stranger suggested that BBC Local Radio “is dead” because station editors no longer have a passion for local news. Instead, he suggested, they prefer to pick up on talking points from the national agenda.
I have some sympathy for this view and in The Red Light Zone I observed that newsroom staff can work themselves to exhaustion doing stuff that would be best defined as information processing rather than journalism. By that I mean that much time is spent moving stories from their source in newspapers or social media and on to radio, television, online and then, ironically, back to social media.
I can recall many occasions when my natural curiosity has caused me to suggest an idea to the newsroom only to be told that they looked into it and “nothing came of it”. Fair enough until you see the same idea led to an exclusive in a local paper and at that point it is picked up by the same newsroom colleagues who previously swore there was nothing in it.
The scourge of press releases and official statements also hinders originality. Like that time I boarded an early morning flight from Inverness to London. A minute or so after wheels up it became clear the plane was not climbing as quickly as expected. At that point the captain announced we would be returning to Inverness because “we have lost an engine”. I still resent his use of “we” in such circumstances. Surely responsibility for the whereabouts of the engine lies with crew and airline and not the 200 odd passengers now regretting a life unlived as the plane circled the Moray Firth, dumping fuel to minimise the risk of a fireball return to Inverness. In the end, we landed safely but with a fleet of fire trucks and ambulances chasing us along the tarmac.
Once back in the terminal building I called The BBC newsroom and spilled the details of our mid-flight scare. The reporter who took my call listened patiently then asked an unusual question.
“But who’s saying this?”
“It’s me. Jeff. I was on the flight.”
“Yes but is there an official statement? “
The conversation went back and forth like this until I gave up, hung up, found my car and drove home. The story didn’t make the morning bulletins. It was aired at lunchtime by which time an official statement had come in.
But here’s what I have learned over the years. Not everyone who works for BBC News is a good journalist and what’s more some of the best journalists in the BBC don’t work in News. A programme like Radio 4’s You and Yours, for example, despite its twee title, regularly airs stories that you won’t hear anywhere else. And producers on Radio Scotland’s Kaye Adams programme do likewise and often follow up small nuggets of information suggested by callers. Lunchtime presenter John Beattie carries a digital recorder with him at all times and has secured many a brilliant interview on the hoof.
And, you know, it’s not that difficult. Small radio stations could easily scoop the big BBC machine if reporters were encouraged to bash the phone, knock on doors and chase local leads… and editors had the courage and confidence to run stories that no one else has found.
Then the fear of missing stories that others are running is replaced by the pride of running the stories that they aren’t.