Nicholas Jones - Blog and Archive Website

Just as MPs are having to shoulder an unprecedented responsibility following Theresa May’s historic Brexit defeat, broadcasters should rise to the challenge and find a more informative and representative way to test local opinion.

News coverage in the immediate aftermath of the crushing rejection of May’s EU withdrawal agreement displayed yet again all the faults of the tired and repetitive formula used by television and radio programmes to canvas views of those living in prominent Leave or Remain communities.

If ever there was a format that illustrated the failings of lazy broadcast journalism, it is the ever-predictable Vox Pops sequence.

Day after day throughout the Brexit trauma, from referendum to parliamentary crisis, we have seen the same scene.

Broadcasters, like print journalists, are rightly being challenged by leading figures on the Remain side for the news media’s failure during the EU Referendum campaign to exercise sufficient scrutiny over the claims being made by Leave supporters.

Based on my 30 years as a BBC correspondent, from well before the 1975 referendum, I am in no doubt as to how viewers and listeners were short changed.

During the 1970s and 1980s there was always a clear divide during election campaigns between news stories and campaign reports.

Major announcements and developments were treated on their news value, as self-standing items, and any political ramifications were covered in separate balanced packages on the day’s campaigning, later in the bulletin on programme.

But in the 2016 referendum campaign the BBC’s news value judgement seemed to be totally awry.

The self indulgence of a cohort of departing BBC executives in agreeing between themselves the size of their pay-offs and pension pots came as no surprise to many of the journalists and producers who had worked alongside them.  Nicholas Jones, a BBC correspondent for thirty years, traces the origins of a sense of entitlement that took root in the upper echelons of the Corporation and which uncoupled an ‘officer class’from their obligations to the licence payer.

 While some employees found the collective strengths and ideals of ‘auntie’ BBC outdated and restrictive, many of my contemporaries ended fulfilling careers acknowledging they had been well rewarded. Most are comforted in retirement by their good fortune in being the beneficiaries of what for them has been a generous final-salary pension scheme. But those of us who stayed the course cannot help but reflect on the gulf that grew ever wider between editorial and production staff and the multiplying layers of upper management

 

Fleet Street and the BBC should realise that they had a stake in each other’s future and that by working alongside each other they could go on delivering some of the best journalism in the world.

James Harding, the BBC’s new director of news and current affairs, gave the Journalists’ Charity what he acknowledged was an unfashionable but unashamedly upbeat assessment of the future of British journalism.

He told the charity’s annual summer lunch (2.7.2013) that the BBC had a vital stake in the future of the press and in safeguarding press freedom.

Not only did Fleet Street provide a brilliant, boisterous expression of opinion but it also faced the critical challenge of helping to provide a constant a constant stream of ideas which sustained the journalism of the BBC. 

“Within the BBC there is a constant hunger for fresh stories and opinions for which it relies on the papers and for its part the BBC acts as a fog horn for the great work of Fleet Street and it should credit newspapers and journalists for their reporting”.

In a news provider like the BBC, where story lines are constantly being changed and updated, journalists and editors have to trust each other. There is what amounts to an umbilical cord of trust between a reporter out on assignment and those executives who have editorial control over what is broadcast in news bulletins and programmes.

Sometimes that sense of trust gets eroded; perhaps the journalist senses that the editor no longer approves of the story line which is being pursued.

If there is a serious misunderstanding the umbilical cord might be broken altogether.  Very occasionally – as I know from thirty years as a BBC correspondent – that breakdown in relations might have been due to what I can only describe as a hidden agenda on the part of the BBC’s management.

When it comes to the dropping of Newsnight’s investigation into the allegations of child abuse against the late disc jockey Sir Jimmy Saville, the suspicion is that the story was dropped for corporate reasons: the BBC did not want to jeopardise its pre-Christmas tribute programmes to such a well-known celebrity.

It is the manoeuvring within the BBC’s editorial chain of command – which was going on without the knowledge of Newsnight’s reporter Liz MacKean and producer Merion Jones – which makes the Savile saga so dangerous for the BBC.