Sunday 5 October 2014

Feedback loop

The first episode of the new series of Feedback on Radio 4 followed up on comments by Today editor Jamie Angus arguing that the programme needed to change the way it reports foreign news and that it also needs to introduce more lighter stories. 

If you remember (as I'm sure you do), Today lost a lot of listeners over the summer. Jamie Angus said that this had mainly come about because they couldn't face listening to so much depressing news, mostly from the Middle East - news which they felt powerless to do anything about. 

He said that listeners were also being put off by people shouting during interviews (specifically citing Palestinian and Israeli spokesmen throughout the Gaza Conflict, even though not a single Israeli spokesmen did any shouting - and I listened to every interview, so I know that for a fact!)

He went on to say that the programme needed to win such put-off listeners back and attract a younger audience as well (in particular "replenishers" - i.e. 35-55 year olds - like me). 

On Feedback, Jamie Angus said that this wouldn't mean any reduction in the overall amount of foreign news just new ways of reporting it to engage the listener, as well as less of a focus on 'depressing news' and more of a focus on 'undepressing news' from abroad. 

As an example of the latter, he cited one current problem - that pretty much all the news out of Africa is about disease, war, famine (etc). This, he said, doesn't give a full, fair picture of Africa; so, therefore, Today will be running a major new series over the next couple of weeks looking at something more positive - Africa's changing media. [A rather naval-gazing first choice, perhaps, but potentially interesting nonetheless].

This struck me as being what From Our Own Correspondent has been trying to do for years.

He denied this would be dumbing-down, and denied that the lighter items would take over. (He also denied that John Humphrys had been forced to rap. He said no one could have forced Humph to do that and that Humph had actually asked to do it!)

Speaking for myself, more lighter items on Today is not necessarily a bad thing and, similarly, less 'bang, bang!' (or 'award-winningly-gloomy') foreign coverage wouldn't be a bad thing either [less opportunity for finger-wagging bias!]. 

Jamie Angus is promising a decent balance and asks us to judge him over time - which we will.

Roger Bolton's interview with Jamie Angus didn't touch on the 'shouting' issue but his belief that shouting and on-air conflict can be deeply off-putting seems to be part of a growing zeitgeist at the BBC, what with Newsnight's Ian Katz, Evan Davis and Jamie Angus echoing each others thoughts about the need for a different kind of interview (less aggressive, less predictable.)

According to this week's Feedback, this urge for much less conflict also seems to be the zeitgeist among Radio 4 listeners.

There's apparently been almost universal praise from Radio 4's listeners for Matthew Taylor's three-part Radio 4 series Agree to Differ, where the idea was for Matthew to get his guests (from opposite ends of the argument) to explore where they disagree and, more importantly, where they agree on controversial issues like fracking, vivisection and the status of Jerusalem - and to do so calmly and without anyone loudly challenging anyone else, or talking over each other. 

That edition on Jerusalem didn't meet with universal approval beyond Feedback listeners though as Hadar at BBC Watch 'differed' with it in its entirely, accusing it of "promoting unchallenged anti-Israel propaganda and warped histories of Jerusalem". Maybe the next series of Agree to Differ should have Hadar and Matthew Taylor as the two opposing guests and, say, Sarah AB [my favourite poster at Harry's Place] trying to reconcile them!

Still, the idea behind Agree to Differ is clearly one that has considerable appeal. I like the idea of it too. It seems so grown-up [as teenagers might put it]. 

That said, I wouldn't want it to become the norm. This kind of interviewing should be part of the mix but I suspect that there's a good portion of the Radio 4 (and Newsnight audience), including me from time to time, which still wants to see/hear a Jeremy Paxman, Andrew Neil, Eddie Mair or John Humphrys tearing some politician to shreds...or, to be more accurate, tearing some politician we don't like to shreds. [When a politician we do like gets torn to shreds, then that's blatant BBC bias!]

Plus, I have the fear that a guiding, all-healing presenter in any programme which aims to reconcile contrasting opinions and find consensus has a greater potential to steer it in his or her own biased direction than in a more traditional BBC scrap. 

As per Hadar, Matthew Taylor was one of the non-pro-Israeli pair on that famously, shouty edition of The Moral Maze [alongside Giles Fraser]. His position was not a neutral one in that programme (even though it was the most nuanced), so - again, as per Hadar - he has his own biases and it's not unreasonable to worry that those biases might steer the discussion and, worse, do so to even greater effect given that the programme's 'reason for being' is to cancel out the biases of its guests wherever possible by the guiding hand of a consensus seeker (i.e. a paragon of impartiality).

Of course, that's far from inevitable, but it is a possibility, isn't it? [And, according to BBC Watch, a reality].

By this stage of this week's Feedback I was all for putting on some Morton Feldman and embracing the concept of conflictlessness. 

So I did and, lo, there appeared the next feature on Feedback and Feedback correspondents praising an edition of Any Questions that didn't feature disputatious politicians and where Jonathan Dimbleby didn't constantly interrupt people - i.e. a less conflictual Any Questions. [Yes, 'conflictual' exists. I've just made it up. So now it exists. Stephen Fry has tweeted his approval]. 

Yes, it was nice for a change. But democracy is disputatious, and ought to be. A sensible mix of Any Questions editions featuring silly, point-scoring, democratically-elected politicians and sensible non-elected, non-politicians (like me, Sue and David Preiser) would work a treat, perhaps, but this apparent BBC-sanctioned urge for conflictness should not be taken too far. The 'bad old days' of Dateline London and the 'ongoing days' of Sunday remind me how harmful consensual BBC programmes can be.

Given that I'm conflicted within myself, though seeking consensus within myself, I'd be interested in knowing what you reckon to all this malarkey.

1 comment:

  1. 'Feedback' has never been a programme that has attracted me since Chris Dunkley was sacked. Boulton is too BBC - 'A safe pair of hands'. The BBC can be assured that he will not rock the boat.


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