Problems with British Broadcasting – Not Just the BBC

There are serious problems with broadcast news in the UK and other nations that merit discussion and systematic research. In many respects, the coverage of ‘partygate’ and new developments around the BBC License Fee highlight these issues, but could also narrow the discussion. It is not only about ‘partygate’ or only about the BBC. In my viewing experience, it seems to be a problem across the major TV news broadcasters in the UK, including Channel 4 as well as BBC News, somewhat less so with Sky News. And it is not at all a problem with BBC World Service.

What problems? In announcing a proposed freeze of the BBC’s license fee, the Culture Secretary, Nadine Dorries, cited ‘groupthink’ and impartiality.[1] While these concerns pre-dated partygate, the BBC’s treatment of this topic highlighted both issues. The consistent way in which all BBC journalists tended to prosecute the Prime Minister for his actions with respects to parties at Number 10 in 2020 seemed to fail any test of impartiality. Interviews with individuals across the country focused on how do you feel about what the PM did or said? However, this was true for Channel 4 as well – nearly identical editorial briefs.

Courtesy Arthur Berger

I have called this ‘pack journalism’ in line with the seminal work by Timothy Crouse (1972), entitled The Boys on the Bus, which captured the groupthink that developed among the journalists literally on the bus following Kennedy’s campaign. As they shared impressions and insights, they were led to identify the story of the day.

In the digital age, it is not surprising that journalists are increasingly networked in and across newsrooms in ways that lead them to arrive at the same news story rather than a more diverse array of stories. No journalist wants to miss the story, or have the wrong (different) take on the story. I’ve discussed that as digitally networked pack journalism.[2] So my impressions are in line with the rise of a groupthink but not only within the BBC but also across the channels. It is a bigger and more serious issue. The very fact that a Whitehall veteran, Sue Gray, was asked to investigate ‘Partygate’ speaks volumes about the inadequacy of contemporary news coverage.

Similarly, it is not simply a partisan or anti-Boris Johnson issue. While the BBC License Fee might create a view of partygate as simply a partisan controversy, the same type of prosecutorial versus impartial coverage typified news coverage of antisemitism in the Labour Party, with its prosecution of Jeremy Corbin.

Of course, partygate is a story, but it is not necessarily the story – more important than issues involving Ukraine, Russia, China, inflation, cost of living, and so on. But partygate overwhelmed coverage of other issues on televised news. Print news was far more diverse as there was very little real news to report on the issue. But on television, there were many testimonials ranging from individuals on the street to members of parliament about such questions as how they felt about people partying while others were isolating.

In such ways, pack journalism or groupthink is not only about how an issue is covered but what issues are covered. Media researchers have long argued that the most important effect of the media is not focused on what you think about an issue, but what issues you think about. Media have a strong role in agenda-setting. Rather than discussing a cyberattack on Ukraine in the context of Russian provocation, the media are focused on parties in the UK and a tennis player in Australia.

If you can see these patterns of pack journalism or groupthink and biased versus impartial reporting, the key question becomes: Are these patterns occurring more frequently and, if so, why?  

The answer seems to be that they frame simple, cheap, and entertaining stories to cover. No investigative journalism required. No research needed. The public understand the issues. Just pose a simple question to many individuals and choose the most engaging and entertaining mix of responses to fill much of the news. This is the journalistic equivalent of throwing red meat to the viewers. It is like moving BBC ‘Question Time’ into the nightly news. Audience ratings go up. Costs go down. Information goes down!

It is possible to develop many other examples such as around NHS coverage, over-reliance on care homes in the pandemic, the Royal Family and more, but my only point is that these issues of groupthink and impartiality have not been dealt with adequately either by the researchers, politicians, or news providers.[3] Moreover, the problems could be growing more acute. The days of chiding American news coverage seem to be fading. Instead, UK news coverage is earning a right to be more critically questioned. I hope academic colleagues take this as a serious challenge for marshalling more systematic research and analysis, and not just a political or partisan issue.


[1] See her statement: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IvlogLdqhIs

[2] https://billdutton.me/tag/networked-journalists/

[3] For example, I find the ten points of a BBC impartiality plan to be incredibly general: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-59088800

Hobbesian World of TV News in Britain

The Hobbesian World of Broadcast TV News in Britain

As an American, I often find broadcast TV news in Britain to be completely out of character with my expectations. For example, as I would expect, BBC World Service is almost always polite, civilized, correct, and informative, while also entertaining. In contrast, all too often, BBC One TV news broadcasts fall into shockingly nasty, brutish, self-righteous, and mean-spirited coverage.  

The most recent example is coverage this week of the so-called ‘partygate’ scandal in which the PM is accused of knowing about and permitting a party at Number 10 Downing Street during last year’s Christmas season, that breached his own lockdown restrictions. It resurfaced when a video was leaked of his former press secretary being amused, laughing, last year while rehearsing how to answer questions about these accusations. The point is one of hypocrisy, fair enough, but the coverage this past week has been extraordinary.

2 minutes hate from Orwell’s 1984

Each BBC anchor and presenter took turns attacking the PM and the former press secretary, even after she resigned. And most journalists interviewed aggrieved members of the public who were enraged by the banter or the breach of the rules. (Apparently, if a member of the government risks their health and safety in violating rules, then we all should be able to put our lives at risk.) And if someone laughs at a rehearsal, there are no other explanations for it – not stress, struggling for words, or other human reasons for banter – than being disrespectable of those in the public who have suffered from COVID. No one in the broadcast studio seemed to miss an opportunity to kick the victims while they were down. I was reminded of mob and vigilante behaviour, where everyone must demonstrate anger for others to witness their virtue.

A saw a post by a professor who said no one will trust the government in the wake of this scandal. That is the conventional story. Perhaps it is a minority opinion, but I wonder if anyone will respect the press after this disproportionate trashing of public officials.

Why were they treated in such a nasty and self-righteous way? Maybe it was personal. Many of the press elite know the people in this saga, so maybe they just have grudges or personal animosities to vent. Is it what broadcasters must do to please and gain an audience?  Maybe it is a model of accepted professional practice in a rather unrestrained Hobbesian world of UK TV broadcasting.

From my perspective as a viewer, the degree that the TV anchors and journalists worked to build up anger towards the culprits of this scandal reminded me of Orwell’s two minutes hate in 1984. Extreme, yes, I accept that, Orwell did work at the BBC during the war, and I find it fascinating that he captured this cathartic behavior. It is not a world away from what I saw the anchors and journalists orchestrating on BBC One.

The COVID 19 pandemic has been a worldwide catastrophe and people are angry about how their normal lives have been undermined by this epidemic. Given this inevitable frustration, I would think all of us – particularly journalists and TV anchors – would be wise not to provoke and anger others. Spending a huge proportion of time whipping up anger over a petty scandal while neglecting major developments in Afghanistan, Ukraine, China, and other news hot spots around the world just seems nuts and potentially dangerous.