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BBC can use cuts to pull up its anchors

Original Source: GUARDIAN: MONDAY 13 JUNE 2011
Martin Bell  The Guardian, Monday 13 June 2011
Martin Bell

I have a suggestion for where the BBC can start its cuts ? reining in expensive 'first-hand' reports that add nothing for the viewer

The BBC, under severe budget pressures, is seeking to prove that less is better. So it has presented a cost-cutting programme under the acronym DQF: Delivering Quality First. George Orwell, who knew a Ministry of Truth when he saw one, would have felt thoroughly at home.

"When in despair, just raise a glass

and drink

To the enduring power

of doublethink."

(Mine, not Orwell's)

There is certainly one area of BBC News seeking savings of 20% where less actually would be better: that is the expensive and wasteful practice of sending presenters somewhere near the scene of a news event and pretending that this adds value and authenticity.

Helen Boaden, the director of news, confessed in a recent speech that although this had become "etiquette" on major news stories, in some cases it had been unnecessary. She singled out the appearance of Huw Edwards outside the home of a suspect in the disappearance of Madeleine McCann, with "poor old Huw saying: 'This is the guilty hedge' ? I look back at that and think that probably wasn't the best use of our money".

The advance of the anchors dates back some 30 years, to the time when newsreaders were replaced by proper journalists. It was not an instant success. Even John Simpson was a newsreader for a while in 1982, until sent into temporary exile in Montevideo. Those who remained enjoyed the exposure and higher salaries, and maybe the relative comfort and safety too, but they chafed at their new and limited role of reading words off an autocue. So they stopped being newsreaders and became "anchors", a title suggesting depth and gravitas. And they sought to push the boundaries.

The first step, initiated by ITN, was the live two-way interview with the correspondent in the field. I would gently inquire of my warzone rivals whether at the end of their report they had been "Well Trevored". That was because their first answer to Trevor McDonald, the all-knowing anchorman in London, would invariably begin with the words "Well, Trevor ?" All they were doing was reworking their report for a second time, but without the benefit of pictures. The theory was that the newsreader, however marginally, was involved in the day's events. The contagion of the two-way spread rapidly to Sky News and the BBC. I objected, but was overruled.

In due course TV journalism became a performing art. The BBC's Vin Ray, an experienced hand who secretly admired the old ways while defending the new, described it as "being in the moment". There was actually a style coach. Reporters were taught to walk and talk and wave their arms at the same time. One distinguished correspondent was told she had to acquire "a new set of hand signals". Farewell journalism, hello semaphore.

Then the carpenters moved in. Presenters' platforms were built on hotel rooftops, in green zones, outside military bases and even in the gardens of the broadcasters' own bureaux. At that point the anchors descended in all their vainglory, fronting news programmes (or parts of them) from what appeared to be, but seldom was, the scene of the action. They applied make-up and lip gloss and even hairspray ? and that was just the men.

A new breed of subanchor appeared. Tom would announce the news from London, then pass the ball to Dick on his platform, who in turn would throw it to Harry, who was doing the actual reporting. Harry, the lowest paid and best informed of the three, would aspire to be a Dick and ultimately a Tom.

With the advent of rolling news, which usually shows more than it knows, the outcome of all these proliferations was not so much news as newsak ? the appearance without the reality. It was expensive, too. Anchors and subanchors don't travel at the back of the plane. There was also the question of what did they actually know? Journalists in the field, tethered to their platforms and satellite uplinks, used to be described in the trade as "dish monkeys"; but they were not paid peanuts.

Occasionally, good journalism survived: George Alagiah escaped from etiquette captivity after the tsunami in Sri Lanka to file a memorable report from his home village near Batticaloa. But such opportunities were rare. Many good reporters choose at one point in their career to go "inside" and are clearly yearning to come out again. But there is no middle way. Either they are there or they are not. Marooned on a hotel rooftop in Ruritania, they know no more at first hand than if they were in the studio in White City, Osterley or Gray's Inn Road.

Reporters should also be wary of the creeping symptoms of correspondentitis. This is an affliction of the mind that occurs when they have been around for a while, believe that they have unique insights to offer, and file reports that are chiefly about themselves. The roles of anchor and sub-anchor play to this weakness with devastating effect. Within the BBC's College of Journalism, there is scope for a School of Humility. Budget cuts may yet deliver it.

? The author is a former BBC foreign correspondent and independent MP. A full version appears in the British Journalism Review, Volume 22 Number 2, available from SAGE Publications, 1 Oliver's Yard, 55 City Road, London EC1Y 1SP. Subscription hotline: +44 (0)20 7324 8701


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