Thursday 10 March 2011
Why we need Sky News
Yesterday morning I watched a remarkable TV report from Libya. At peak time Sky News broadcast a 10 minute package from its team in Zawiyah. It was great journalism, great storytelling, great television. The film simply showed what it was like on the ground in rebel held Libya under attack from Gaddafi forces. The team allowed the story to unfold, allowed us to see and hear from ordinary Libyans and allowed the time on screen to create a memorable piece of reportage. Some of it was shocking and graphic, but then so is war.There was no grandstanding ego stuff from reporter Alex Crawford, just enough commentary to keep us on top of fast moving events. After ten minutes I felt that I understood what it was really like in Libya at the moment. It deserves to be nominated for a BAFTA and if it is, it will get my vote.
The future of Sky News has of course been an issue of late and journalism like this demonstrates just why we need it. The sad fact is that the BBC would never have broadcast something like this, at this length, at prime time and in the raw and powerful way that the Sky team put it together. And this gets us to the very heart of the debate about plurality of provision in TV news.
OK first things first -- why wouldn't the BBC have broadcast it? After all there are a huge number of BBC staff in and around Libya serving a huge number of BBC outlets. Surely someone could have filed something equivalent? There are several reasons. Firstly BBC News wouldn't want a report as long as ten minutes, especially one as graphic, in a prime slot. There is no particular logic behind this, just that BBC News has always done 3 minute reports. To get the necessary swathe of permissions from the BBC hierarchy to upset the guidelines and traditions and banish the running order templates would take until Christmas. But the second reason is more profound in explaining the BBC way of doing things. The BBC could not countenance broadcasting a report that simply showed a slice of what was happening. The news the Corporation produces has to be mediated in many ways before it reaches the consumer. This piece would fail straight away. Where is the correspondent giving context? Where are the experts? Where is the analysis? Viewers need to have everything pre-digested by that vast BBC news machine.
I happen to like the Sky "raw" approach. So often the experts know, or can say, little more than the blandly obvious, the analysis is banal or pointless and correspondents are stuck regurgitating agency copy from London. Why not, I say, allow us to see the data, watch the footage, feel the atmosphere and make up our minds.
The debate about plurality in news often diverts straight to an amorphous discussion of political bias, more often perceived than real. But plurality means much more than that. As I hope I have shown, it is also about the type of stories that are covered and the way in which they are told. The Zawiyah report is just one example. Another is apocryphal but worth telling. It's an old hack's tale of terrible floods somewhere in middle England. The news teams turn up and set to work. The newspaper boys and ITV and other TV crews start filming and photographing the floodwaters, interviewing the victims, looking for the drowned teddy bear or the sodden kitten or the tearful householder. The BBC team however makes its way straight to the Town Hall to get official confirmation that there has been a flood.
Not true I know. Nor do I want to denigrate the great and brave work of many BBC journalists. After all I have been one myself. However, unlike any other news organisation, the BBC is saddled with a massive unwieldy bureaucracy and like all bureaucracies it has to exert control. Good journalism involves a high degree of entrepreneurship and that sits ill with multiple layers of management. The results of this seep through to very fundamentals of BBC reporting, everything has to be controlled, filtered, explained, processed by the those who know best. What the work of Alex Crawford and the Sky team shows is how powerful television reportage can be when journalistic enterprise is given its head, the controlling bureaucrats keep out of the way and the audience credited with some intelligence of its own. That's why we need more than the BBC providing our news and why Sky is doing a great job.