Ever since the UK’s decision to leave the EU, it has become routine across the media to speak of there being a movement out in the country, and particularly amongst the working class, that is selfish and isolationist. As the playwright Bonnie Greer railed in the New European, Brexit “makes this great country turn its back, pull up the drawbridge, put up the wall, curl in.” Conversely, the middle class are meant to be more imaginative, internationalist, and compassionate. How is it, then, that the BBC, an organisation that was criticised in Ofcom’s latest report for radiating a perceived “white, middle class and London-centric point of view,” is proving increasingly negligent in its coverage of international affairs?
I have noticed this tendency for a while but it seems to have become ironically much more pronounced during the COVID-19 pandemic. Never has a “global” emergency been so British. It might be unfair to single out The World At One here, but this is the BBC show that I listen to the most frequently. It is a daily lunchtime news programme on BBC Radio 4 that is usually presented by Sarah Montague, Mark Mardell or Jonny Dymond. There has been some effort to make the broadcasts podcasts, or available to download, but this has ensued very haphazardly. The last two full episodes to be released as podcasts date from March 16 and November 15.
Supposing that we took yesterday’s episode (April 8) and imagined that its numbers had randomly come up for it to be turned into a podcast. How would it be rated on its delivery of international news?
When I ran a casual eye over yesterday morning’s international stories, two of them appeared to me to merit headline status. At 0813, the Guardian had run with “Italian bond yields jump as EU leaders fail to reach agreement” and at 0927 it had followed this with “German GDP set for record 9.8% fall in second quarter.” The first of these is news – something that had factually happened – whilst the second was a joint estimate from four of Germany’s leading economic think-tanks, which, if it is not so equivocally a material occurrence, is still highly remarkable.
But neither was remarkable enough to catch the eye of The World At One. In the opening news bulletin, France was awarded a mention, after the Bank of France had estimated a 6% drop in the nation’s GDP, but this was bizarrely uncoupled from the scarier report from the much richer European economy (Sky, the Financial Times, and the Telegraph had naturally bunched these complementary stories together). The fright from France was immediately offset with happier tidings from Tesco, that greatly more momentous European nation, which had experienced a 30% hike in sales from panic-buyers. The rise in the price of Italy’s debt – and indeed the breakdown in EU talks that had prompted this – maintained a mysterious silence.
Other than a recap of a World Health Organisation press conference, this was seemingly the sum of the planet’s international news. There was no word from China, Spain or Sweden, nations whose responses to the coronavirus outbreak will have as much bearing upon events in the UK as our own government’s actions. Or, alternatively, nations whose news might be simply worthwhile or interesting in itself. As per usual, Iran, that beggar who is always jostled to the back of the world’s newsworthy countries, couldn’t expect to receive a pennyworth of attention. It has long been customary for the BBC to omit Iran from its news bulletins altogether, even as this nation’s death toll has soared and its economy has flatlined.
Oh, but wait! The programme’s bulletin had also ended with some extraordinary news from Italy:
A bridge has collapsed on a normally busy route in Northern Italy. No-one was hurt as the road was empty because of lockdown restrictions. It’s the latest of a series of bridge collapses in Italy, including the one in Genoa two years ago, which killed more than forty people.
These are like lines that you might hear a newsreader utter stiltedly in a dream. How old was the bridge? How big was it? Why did it collapse, or, if this is not known, then why do engineers think that it is likely to have collapsed? Were there any warning signs? What did Italy’s Prime Minister have to say about it? Are any bridges in the UK expected to fall down too? Having been given a tantalising flicker of such a baffling news story, the listener is surely not going to be so stupid as to have no further curiosity about it?
Newsocologists have increasingly clustered around five alternative theories to explain the ongoing distress at The World At One. These are: (a) that there is now so much news in the world that it is impossible to report it all; (b) that the BBC no longer has the resources to adequately cover international affairs; (c) that the BBC has a bias against reporting stories that reflect badly upon the EU; (d) that the BBC has a bias against stories about civil unrest in nations such as Italy, China and Iran because it fears that they will somehow undermine the lockdown in the UK; or (e) that the BBC has a bias against reporting international news as a way of trying to reconnect with the supposedly jaded, Brexit-supporting share of its audience.
This is a long and diverse list but let us visit each point briefly.
(a) there is now so much news in the world that it is impossible to report it all. The trouble with this theory is that in the specific broadcast that I have chosen to analyse, the two stories at the front of the news bulletin were deploring a general absence of news. The condition of the Prime Minister’s health remained unknown, as did whether the UK’s lockdown would be extended. Even so, if the banquet no longer fits on the table, then it is doubtless better to get a bigger table than to throw half of the banquet away. The World At One always freezes its news bulletin at a standard length, regardless of how much news is issuing from all around the planet. And the listener’s prize for getting so quickly through the news bulletin is to arrive at a magazine of commentary and analysis that is often frustratingly information-lite.
Yesterday, The World At One opted for a typical ploy, in that it undertook a lengthy interview with a has-been politician. Such interviews are always promoted to us as if they are a special treat, a rare, exclusive access to someone with a privileged knowledge of the levers of power. In this instance, the former Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt was the show’s darling. He dispensed commonplaces, platitudes, and no insight that was remotely memorable, over a far longer segment of the programme than the actual news bulletin had filled. If it hadn’t been Jeremy Hunt, then it would have been George Osborne (who had appeared on the Sunday sister show) or David Cameron (Tuesday) or Chris Patten and Michael Heseltine (almost all of last year). These luvvies bestow an indistinguishable wisdom upon the nation and after a while you sense that the ultimate purpose of flattering them with an interview is simply to fill up the airtime as cheaply as possible.
A sub-genre of this timewasting latches on to somebody who is like us, somebody who might be a fixture in our own community and who will show that the news is inclusive of the world that we live in. Yesterday, we were on the home front in Coventry with Amie Burbridge, a medical consultant in the emergency department. As with Hunt et al, Amie did not say anything that the listener could not have predicted that she would have said (“I’d really like to spend the day outside in the garden, but I’m happy to be going into work…” etc ). Nonetheless, the onus was on her to remain as banal as possible. If she turned out to be wonderfully eccentric, then she would be interesting in herself and she could no longer model as the stereotypically “ordinary” worker. The point is that an editorial decision has been made to replace China and Iran and Spain with minute upon minute of Amie’s uber-ordinariness.
(b) the BBC no longer has the resources to adequately cover international affairs. This is ostensibly a plausible explanation, given that expenditure on international journalism is everywhere in a dreadful, long-term decline. In January, when tasked with making savings of £80million, the BBC announced that it would cut 450 jobs from its news service and that it would commit to covering fewer stories. Yet in a superconnected age, there is no reason why a scantier journalistic presence in foreign capitals should equate to a downplaying of international news.
YouTube’s late-lamented BEME News demonstrates what can be done with only an internet connection. Their man Lou Foglia had presented dense, concise, exhaustively-researched reports into hotspots such as Algeria, Zimbabwe and Venezuela. It appears that BEME simply read up on these subjects. The World At One is surely not yet so depleted that they cannot afford to Google the news in foreign countries or to fire off a few emails to relevant people on the ground.
(c) the BBC has a bias against reporting stories that reflect badly upon the EU. Following the aftermath of the 2016 Brexit vote, a narrative emerged, one that frequently went unchallenged across the BBC, in which the EU was viewed as modern, progressive, and a truehearted friend of civilised values. Last year, any news that placed this narrative under strain, such as the EU’s pressure on the Italian government to lower the scale of its welfare spending, or the extent of the strikes across France, became a source of acute discomfort. These stories were at best conveyed elliptically, if at all.
The BBC is here handicapped by its need to produce an unbiased commentary. It would be very easy at the moment to obtain a prominent Brexiteer to gloat over the newest failings of the EU. But is there any such equivalent person on the Remain side, who could passionately take up the EU’s cause and argue that its austerity is justified and insist that a viable future can be still pictured for the Eurozone? Even Peter Mandelson and Michael Heseltine are not today this full-throated. Obviously worried about a consequent drift into bias, the BBC’s reflex is to maintain that any incoming bad news from Europe is on too fine a level of detail. Thus, a gigantic recession is ballooning in the Eurozone with only the sparsest and most nebulous coverage from the BBC.
(d) the BBC has a bias against stories about civil unrest in nations such as Italy, China and Iran because it fears that this will somehow undermine the lockdown in the UK. This is self-evidently the case. On The World At One, people who flout the UK lockdown are always glimpsed distantly across parks, rather than being hauled in to be empathetically interviewed at length about their perspectives. Most of the BBC’s output is currently striving to encourage mass obedience and so any international news stories about civil unrest will be swimming against a particularly powerful tide.
(e) the BBC has a bias against reporting international news as a way of trying to reconnect with the supposedly jaded, Brexit-supporting share of its audience. This sounds like a conspiracy theory but the BBC’s behaviour is so unreadable that I suppose I should entertain it. If it was genuinely the policy, it would constitute a spectacularly inept misinterpretation of the 2016 vote. Lord Ashcroft’s poll on the day of the referendum had found that the largest percentage of Leave voters (49%) agreed with “the principle that decisions about the UK should be taken in the UK.” This does not logically translate into a lack of interest in international news or a refusal to contemplate foreign cultures.
The word “World” is presently rather like a silent letter in the title of this BBC news show. The World At One needs to swiftly get back on the planet again. If it is not going to resemble that notoriously bleak Brexit castle then it will have to lower the proverbial drawbridge. This programme faces no material obstacle to achieving a passable working knowledge of international affairs. It should be assured that we, the listeners, still dream the same dreams as Lord Reith: to be informed, educated, and entertained, and especially by news of the far-flung.