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.

Social Media Could Have Prevented the UK’s Post Office Scandal

Over seven hundred  (736) ‘sub-postmasters’ were charged – many if not most unjustly – with criminal offenses from 2000-2013 because of discrepancies in their accounts, leading to charges of theft, fraud, and false accounting (Meddings 2021). Had they been siphoning money from their accounts?

We have learned that many of these discrepancies were due to the faults in an IT system, called Horizon, that had been in place for over twenty years (Croft 2021) – enough time to find and correct an problems! Thirty-nine sub-postmasters ‘were convicted of stealing money, with some imprisoned, after the Post Office installed the Horizon computer system in branches’ (Peachey 2021). Many convictions have been reversed recently, following six other convictions that were overturned in December 2020 (Peachey 2021).

In Britain, small branches of the Post Office are called Sub-Post Offices and are headed by a Sub-Postmaster or Sub-Postmistress. They serve as agents of the Post Office but the heads are self-employed. Many offices are based in convenience stores, or in small shops in the center of villages – all sorts of locations – and they and their postmasters become one of the centerpieces of many communities. 

A Generic Sub-Post Office

In an interview on the BBC World Service with one of the sub-postmasters whose conviction was overturned, it was clear that law enforcement led each to believe that they alone were being charged. It was only their office in which accounts showed discrepancies. If only they had been socially networked. The post office knew of the faults as did some public officials, but the problems were not disclosed to the subpostmasters, led to believe they alone were at fault (Meddings 2021).

Facebook had not been launched until 2004 but imagine if these sub-postmasters were on a social network, whether a group on Facebook, WhatsApp, or another network that would enable them to ask if only they were charged with these offences. One query but one post master could have unravelled this scandal.

Instead, they were isolated in their post office, and not informed about similar problems occurring in many other cases. Admittedly, there are a number of ifs, ands, and buts. That said, if many who were charged with stealing from their accounts were aware of similar accusations at many other sub-post offices, they would have been more likely to put two and two together, tie them to an IT system they shared and raised alarms that would have prevented this scandal from happening – one that literally ruined the careers and lives of many of those charged. Sabah Meddings (2021) referred to this as an ‘industrial scale failure of justice’. Sadly, it could have been avoided if they would have been enabled to communicate with others if sub-postmasters offices were on a social network, where they could seek advice, ask questions, raise issues and more. 

Many other occupations have social networks that are particularly valuable for those in relatively isolated offices. For example, Sermo is a social network of physicians, which enables any physician to ask questions of other physicians. If something similar to Sermo had been available to the sub-posts, the likelihood of such an injustice would have been greatly reduced. For all the demonization of social media, it is sometimes easy to forget how valuable they can be to networked individuals. 

Afterword

Government compensation will be coming to sub-postmasters wrongly convicted. Again, this would not have mushroomed over such a long period had social media been prominent in 2000 (Dempsey 2021).

References

Croft, Jane (2021), ‘Sub-postmasters clear their names in court after grave miscarriage of justice’, Financial Times, 24 April, p. 1. 

Depsey, Harry (2021), ‘Sub-Postmasters in line for £100,000 interim payments’, Financial Times, 23 July, p. 2.

Meddings, Sabah (2021), ‘Post Office scandal was an industrial scale failure of justice’, The Sunday Times, 25 April: p. 23.

Peachey, Kevin (2021), ‘Convicted Post Office workers have names cleared’, BBC News, 24 April: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-56859357