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.

A television reporter walks around a near-deserted shopping centre, joshes with traders on stalls in the market place and invariably ends up chatting to customers in a pub, café or bingo hall.

All these sequences have common characteristics. Those asked for their opinions are usually the elderly because the interviews have been recorded in the late morning or early afternoon when most people of working age – and also students – are absent.

Filming tends to be done in locations that offer easy access for a television crew and the chance to film a sequence of set-up shots.

Hence the endless pictures of market traders piling up fruit and vegetables; of pints being pulled at the bar; gurgling coffee machines; or lucky numbers being ticked off at bingo parlours.

What the viewer and listener does not realise is that this snapshot of the voice of the people betrays all the sloppy thinking and cost cutting of hard-pressed newsrooms.

A decision on which town to visit is usually taken at a morning editorial meeting and by the time a reporter and crew arrive at the chosen location, the working population will be long gone. Obvious points of call such as a railway station or bus terminal will be sparsely populated.

Reporters know there is no point turning up at a factory gate or college entrance because they will be too late to talk to those arriving, and even if there had been a chance of gaining access, permission would be needed in advance.

By now the clock is ticking as there is always a tight deadline for departure as any filmed material and interviews will need to be edited back at base in order to be ready for tea-time bulletins.

With such a short window on such last-minute assignments, there is no alternative but to sweep up the comments of the few elderly shoppers walking around the town centre.

Desperation sets in pretty quickly, so it is off to the nearest pub or café as the camera crew is anxious to get a colourful action sequence of staff busying themselves behind the bar or dishing up meals.

Again, the slice of the voice of the people on offer is almost always the elderly, often a whiskery lunch-time drinker or pensioner having a cup of tea.

Such was my frustration at the lack of inspiration in the aftermath of May’s searing defeat that I logged the output after she survived the vote confidence in her government.

ITV News went to South Devon, conducting interviews in the Fork in the Road Café and the late bulletin was in Middlesbrough with a set-up sequence filmed in a bingo hall and at a shopping centre in Totnes. Sky News chose Boston, broadcasting set-up shots of coffee making and interviews with shoppers in the market place.  A further sequence featured a café in Camberley, again with another coffee-making sequence.  Next morning Today’s interviews were of retired men in a miners’ welfare club at Knottingley.

My sympathy goes out to correspondents and television crews who find themselves parachuted into a newsworthy town and who are told they have just a couple of hours to gauge local opinion, film some relevant sequences and head back to base.

In my 30 years as a BBC radio and television reporter I conducted countless Vox Pops interviews and I am sadly all too aware of the limitations and pitfalls. If I was forced to see my own archive gallery of Vox Pops, I would undoubtedly retreat in shame. 

Nonetheless, whenever possible, I did always try to make a point of talking to those directly affected, especially during the bitter industrial unrest of the Thatcher decade.

Even if it meant getting up early or staying late, I endeavoured to station myself at a pit gate or factory entrance early enough to catch workers arriving and if need be would stay around for clocking off.

Collecting a representative sample of opinion requires dedication, the necessary newsroom resources to deploy enough reporters and crews, and most importantly of all, an editorial chain of command that thinks ahead and refuses to take the easy way out.

But I probably have no alternative but to accept the reality of today’s broadcast journalism.   However unrepresentative a Vox Pops snap shot might be, perhaps that is all our broadcasters can offer given the financial restraints of limited newsroom budgets and the incessant demand for instant reaction.

I like to think that if I was on the Brexit beat I would be outside the gates of the Nissan, Honda and Jaguar Land Rover factories; that I would be door-stepping commuters at a railway station or bus terminus; and searching out workplaces or colleges where employees and students were anxious to look ahead to what might happen to a Britain that was in or out of the EU rather than find myself being forced to record the all-too familiar reflections of pensioners and the retired.

Nicholas Jones was a BBC industrial and political correspondent until retiring in 2002. His books include, The Lost Tribe: Whatever Happened to Fleet Street’s Industrial Correspondents?