Nick Jones

Media Trends

A long-standing lament of my final years with BBC radio and television was disappointment at having far fewer opportunities than I would have liked to write considered news reports, or to offer crafted packages illustrated with actuality and interviews. Increasingly the live-two way had come to dominate my daily output at BBC Westminster: the disciplines of the 24-hour news cycle necessitated immediacy rather than the precision of a prepared text.

My 30-year career encompassed a transformation in broadcasting, the shift from scripted reporting towards conversational journalism, a change that has had a profound effect on the delivery of political news.

When I joined Radio Leicester in 1972, 90 per cent of what I said on air had been written in advance. Three decades later, in my last year as a BBC correspondent, before having to retire at 60, the reverse was the case. I calculated that 80 to 90 per cent of my broadcasts in 2002 were live two-ways, either with a newsreader or programme presenter.

Therefore, imagine my fascination when asked to review News and Politics: The Rise of Live and Interpretive Journalism --  the fruits of Stephen Cushion’s extensive statistical research and analysis into the extent to which television news bulletins have adapted their formats to keep pace with the competitive pressures of 24-hour news channels, online services and social media.

 Two events to celebrate milestones in the campaign for freedom of information were coupled with a stiff warning that the United Kingdom’s hard-won rights to know might be restricted in the future due to expenditure cuts in Whitehall and local government.

Two potential threats were identified: a future government might try to limit applications by increasing the cost threshold for inquiries or might follow the example of the Irish government and introduce a charge for FOI inquiries.

The warnings were given by Maurice Frankel, long-standing director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, and by the Information Commissioner, Christopher Graham.

They both voiced concern that frivolous and inane inquiries, especially by journalists, should be avoided because they were being used in a campaign by the Local Government Association and Whitehall departments to try to persuade ministers to save money by limiting the number of applications.

While the Daily Mail’s editor Paul Dacre continues to lick his wounds after a mauling at the hands of what he derides as the “Twitter mob”, his headline writers have had no alternative but to accept the power of social media.

Britain’s national newspapers are finding that the tone and direction of their news content is being influenced increasingly by online insurgencies which instantly reveal a level of public reaction which cannot be ignored.

When defending the Mail’s now infamous headline, “The man who hated Britain” in the row over the attack on the politics of Ed Miliband’s father, Dacre raged against what he said was “the phoney world of Twitter.”

In his opinion the hysteria that had been generated against the Mail’s commentary showed how any newspaper which dared to “take on the left in the interests of its readers risks being howled down by the Twitter mob, which the BBC absurdly thinks represents the views of real Britain.”

But within days of the editor’s denunciation of the power and influence of the Twitterati the Daily Mail was trumpeting the “Twitter firestorm” which had subjected British Gas to “an hour of non-stop abuse” for having imposed a 9.3 per cent increase in gas and electricity prices. 

After a decade or more of cuts and job losses a growing digital audience is holding out the prospect that local newspapers might soon be reaching a tipping point when online income outweighs the loss of print advertising.

At the launch of a new book on the future of local journalism – What Do We Mean By Local? – there was one overriding verdict: delivering news first to an online audience is not a threat to local newspapers but the only realistic way to drive up revenues for what should become the local news franchises of the future.

Ashley Highfield, chief executive of the Johnston Press, which has just completed the re-launch of nearly 200 websites attached to over 200 daily and weekly local newspapers, gave an upbeat assessment to a Media Society audience (10.10.2013).

“The only question is: ‘When is the tipping point when digital revenue growth outweighs the lost income on print?’ Perhaps it will be 2016. 

“In some sections of our business digital revenue now amounts to 15 to 20 per cent of total advertising income; that is up from 10 per cent the previous year and 5 per cent the year before that.

 “When that share of revenue becomes 20 to 30 per cent in the next eighteen months or so – a 30 per cent increase year on year – then the rate of growth in digital business will outweigh the decline in print income.

“And at that point we will reach a tipping point when we can achieve a profit without taking out costs; at last it will mean the business can grow.”

Grave doubts about whether data protection authorities in Britain and across the European Union can ever deliver on a “right to be forgotten” were expressed at seminar organised by the Westminster eForum. 

Both the Ministry of Justice and the UK Information Commissioner believe the newly-published European data protection framework review is in danger of raising “false expectations” on the part of the public about the possibility of individuals deleting personal information.

There was criticism at the seminar (8.3.2012) of what one speaker described as the “political gesturing” of the EU’s Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding.

Lord McNally, Minister of State at the Ministry of Justice, urged the EU to offer the twenty seven member states a workable solution. The right to erase data would not be possible if it related to health care, crime or a free press, nor could it apply to credit rating.

“Businesses should have rights too...we must not undermine responsible lending or financial agreements. We may set the standard so high we don’t get a model which can work in practice.”

Secretly-filmed images of injured and apparently tortured dissenters lying shackled to their beds in a Syrian military hospital are another graphic reminder of the way devices such as mobile phone cameras have revolutionised the reporting of protests and uprisings.

Hardly a day goes by when television news bulletins do not feature dramatic pictures – either from the Arab spring or perhaps a demonstration on the streets of London – and their influence on public opinion cannot be under-estimated.

If thirty years ago there had been the kind of footage which activists can upload now on to the internet via video sharing sites like YouTube, there might well have been a different outcome to historic British struggles like the 1984-5 pit strike.

Photographers and camera crews were regularly corralled and held back behind Police lines during the violent industrial confrontations of the 1980s. As a result there were very few of the graphic images which feature so prominently in today’s newspapers and television news bulletins and which show almost as-live footage of the conditions facing protestors as they are being driven back by  police or security forces..

One striking image from the notorious 1984 Battle of Orgreave at the height of the pit strike – showing a mounted policeman raising his baton against a woman protestor – came to symbolise, especially for the left, the doomed struggle by mining communities to protect their jobs.

A photograph captured by chance illustrated the one-sided nature of the conflict and the mineworkers’ vulnerability in the face of the massive superiority of the massed ranks of mounted police officers. But one fleeting image, reproduced by a few newspapers, had nothing like the impact of the sustained output of today’s citizen journalists. 

Just think what the response might have been if strikers who took on Margaret Thatcher’s government had been able to upload their own footage of a picket’s eye view of being charged by mounted police or the often unrecorded violence and brutality which they say occurred in the mining villages.

Vince Cable was heading for a fall once the party’s President Tim Farron MP began boasting (Any Questions, Radio 4 10.12.2010) that only the Liberal Democrats had the courage to “drag Rupert Murdoch in front of the broadcasting regulator  Ofcom.” 

Media standards groups which are opposed to product placement on British television programmes will get the chance to offer advice on possible safeguards.Sion Simon, a junior minister at the Department of Media, Culture and Sport, told a delegation from the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom (6.10.2009) that the government was anxious to help the industry. Ministers supported product placement because they believed it would give “immediate cash benefits” to struggling television companies.

The promise by Sir Michael Lyons, Chairman of the BBC Trust, to speed up the Corporation’s internal inquiry into how far the BBC needs to be reshaped to meet the digital age is a welcome dose of reality. More is the pity that the management left it so late -- until the combined forces of James Murdoch and the Conservative Party were on the war path, breathing down the BBC’s neck.

Perhaps the most perceptive prediction in the fall-out from James Murdoch’s demand that the BBC should be forced to limit its “land-grab” of online journalism was the suggestion that News Corporation will get a “much more sympathetic” hearing from a government led by David Cameron.