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.
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.