Pistorius, horsemeat and flaming balloons, but no women and children: BBC News at 10

BBC News at 10

This post discusses analysis of 10 hours of ‘BBC News at 10pm’ broadcast between 5th February and 4th March 2013. The BBC’s News at 10pm is the BBC’s flagship news programme with the highest viewing figures of a BBC news programme (4.9 million average per evening).

The purpose of the analysis was to find out whether the BBC, as a publicly funded body, provides a balanced news output or whether they follow the same patterns of churnalism and biased output that the corporately funded media do. I wanted to find out whether the BBC do “inform, educate and entertain” whilst also delivering on their objectives, which include ensuring that all audiences are well served.

Politics (21%) and crime (20%) accounted for most of the broadcast time. Most of the crime coverage focused on crimes with a high ‘news value’, i.e. they were unusual and/or particularly violent crimes, affecting very few people directly.

Oscar Pistorius alleged murder of his girlfriend was the most covered crime item, accounting for 5% of the total news broadcast time for the period. The BBC followed suit with the corporate media and presented a mainly tabloid style of voyeuristic news. Out of 1842 seconds of broadcast on the story, only 2 seconds on 16th February mentioned the culture of violence against women and girls in South Africa.

The second most reported crime story was the trial of Vicky Pryce (wife of ex-MP Chris Huhne) for perverting the course of justice. There seemed little public interest (as opposed to public titillation) in this story – the ex-MP had already pleaded guilty, but the telephone recordings, salacious personal details and drama of the court proceedings were apparently thought to be important for viewers to see.

The BBC spent considerable money reporting on the shooting and funeral of a US teenager called Hadiya Pendleton. Although many children die this way in the US every year, this particular story had big ‘news value’ as the child had appeared at President Obama’s inauguration and Michelle Obama in turn attended her funeral.

It appears that the BBC are sometimes prepared to speculate considerable time and money on stories, such as their broadcast of a road trip to Africa in the hope of uncovering new evidence of who ritually killed the boy found in the Thames. The fact the BBC uncovered no useful new evidence, and spent a lot of money in the process, did not prevent them from broadcasting the story for nearly 5 minutes on 7th February.

On the positive side, the BBC did report on Operation Fernbridge’s first arrest and the Magdalene laundries abuses in Ireland. However, these reports are in the context of only 3% of broadcasting time being dedicated to stories centred on women, and 3% on children & young people. In both cases, the figures drop to 2% for UK-based stories. The reporting on the Magdalene laundries (asylums) story did tend to create the impression the abuse was a long time ago, when in fact the abuse continued in to the 1990’s.

In addition to the Magdalene laundries, the BBC also reported on the IPCC finding Southwark Specialist Rape Unit (Sapphire) had pressured women to drop charges to improve their figures, IVF availability and women cyclists.

Some of the stories centring on women which other mainstream and online media outlets reported widely during the period but which the BBC chose to omit included One Billion Rising, the ‘No to page 3’ campaign, sex abuse in UK’s Asian community, Indian women fleeing poverty and becoming snared in the Middle East sex trade, rape culture in the US, and female genital mutilation in Africa.

During the period, the BBC interviewed and reported on male celebrities almost exclusively. There were interviews with/stories on Ranulph Fiennes, Mo Farah, Paul Gascoigne, Daniel Day-Lewis, Christiano Ronaldo, Rafa Benitez, Ryan Giggs and Richard Briers. There was the story on ‘the new generation of female cyclists’, but a pattern emerged of tending to celebrate men and not celebrate women.

The three UK based news stories centring on children & young people were about sexual abuse in the past, also unhelpfully referred to as ‘historical child abuse’, and ritual killing. In contrast, the BBC ran two excellent reports on children’s lives today in overseas countries; one by Orla Guerin on the Taliban trying to stop children going to school, and one on how the Syrian conflict is affecting children. Except for 30 seconds on the youth economy contained within a 4 minute story on unemployment (20/2/13), the BBC chose not to report on the conditions children & young people are experiencing in the UK today. But perhaps news is just for grown-ups?

I asked the BBC via the Freedom of Information Act how they ensured that their “extensive network of correspondents around the globe and trusted press agencies” who “alert newsroom editors to news developments” (quotes from a previous FOI response here) are operating free from bias, i.e. that they are not making assumptions about which stories the BBC would be interested in and filtering their contributions  accordingly. The BBC refused to provide me any assurance that they had processes in place.

I also asked the BBC for statistics on the staff diversity within their ‘Network News’ team who produce the BBC News at 10. This data showed that of 485 senior managers who would have the most day to day influence over editorial decisions, 309 (63.7%) were men.

There were some very important political stories during the period that the BBC chose not to run with:

  • Up to 24 European countries, including the UK, could face proceedings before European Court of Human Rights for involvement with CIA extraordinary rendition after 9/11
  • Drones, including US drones killing US citizens and British military drones going missing. Drones are covered fairly extensively on the BBC website, but tucked away in the Asia section. I can only speculate as to why the flagship TV news programme continually omitted these stories.
  • A second UK police spy unit had stolen the identities of dead children.
  • Lobbying, including anonymous billionaires donating $120m to more than 100 climate change denial groups working to discredit climate science in the US while secret donors tried to stop UK wind farms, and E.ON lobbying for stiffer sentences for the ‘no dash for gas’ activists.
  • The death of Israel’s prisoner X (Ben Zygier)

 The purpose of the analysis was to look at the proportions of reporting on different news topics rather than the quality, but here are a few observations made while watching all that news:

  • A news story is more likely to be broadcast if there is video footage. The way a man being dragged behind a South African police van or a hot air balloon engulfed in flames and falling to the ground or Dale Cregan going into a pub to shoot people dead is repeatedly played over a number of news programmes suggests the footage was expensive and/or the BBC feels that visual impact (titillation/voyeurism) and ‘news value’ (novelty) is a priority over covering issues affecting everyday lives. ‘Entertaining’ takes precedence over ‘informing’ and ‘educating’ (see ‘why the BBC exists’).
  • During the 10 minutes spent reporting on the theft and near-auction of a Banksy piece (23/2/13) the BBC managed to discuss only theft and ownership, completely avoiding the subject of the artwork which was about exploitation of children overseas to make our consumer goods.
  • The on-location coverage (11/2/13) following the Pope’s resignation was shocking. That is to say that everyone was “shocked”. The correspondents repeatedly said they were “shocked”. Everyone they spoke to was “shocked”. The studio anchor was “shocked”. It was hard to understand why almost half the programme was given to this story when no one had anything to say beyond that. A lot of other things happened in the world that day. It appears that time slots are set out in advance depending on the news value with the correspondents then having to stretch their material out to fill the time. A similar thing happened in the coverage of the gay marriage parliament vote on 5th February.
  • Mark Mardell fronted a series of excellent reports on the clash between Obama’s policy drive and residents of the Mid-West. This again raises the question of why the BBC cannot, or will not, produce items of such depth and quality about UK issues. The BBC sometimes appeared to make a start on this during coverage of Mid-Staffs and the bedroom tax, but less resources are put in, and stories quickly fade away as new novelties arrive.

On this evidence, the BBC is failing to meet two of its four objectives: set new standards of openness and transparency; and do more to serve all audiences. I’ve discussed transparency before here. Reasons for the failure to serve all audiences may include the gender imbalance in the workforce, particularly among senior managers who make editorial decisions. Cultural biases are clearly in operation and the BBC will need to educate itself – or rather allow itself to be educated – to improve. It seems likely that the absence of checks for bias at various stages of the news process is also contributing to the skewed output. If the news coming in to the BBC is being pre-filtered, then insight and depth will suffer while churnalism increases.

The BBC Trust told me that the BBC is not performance managed on audience figures, but this is difficult to believe when the BBC consistently prioritises ‘entertain’ over ‘inform’ and ‘educate’.



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