Saturday 11 June 2016

On the BBC's coverage of the death of Muhammad Ali

Both Newswatch on BBC One/the BBC New Channel and Radio 4's Feedback tackled viewer/listener complaints about the BBC's heavily extensive coverage of the death of Muhammad Ali. 

Both programmes, to their credit, aired complaints that the BBC had gone considerably over the top in the amount of its coverage. And both programmes hauled in a senior BBC editor (Gavin Allen. Controller, Daily News Programmes, on Feedback and Toby Castle, Deputy News Editor, BBC News, on Newswatch) to respond. 

Both senior BBC editors said that the BBC had not only got it 'about right' but had got it 'completely right'. Plus ├ža change. 

For myself, however, I think Gavin Allen - a highly-practised BBC defender - put the case for the defence rather well while Toby Castle came across as the worst kind of arrogant BBC editor. His performance on Newswatch really need to be watched to be witnessed in all its gory 'glory'. 'Arrogant' really is the word for it. 

(His viewer critics in the studio - especially the young lady - 'rescued' him somewhat though by making eyebrow-raisingly wrong-headed comments).

I have to say though that I bought most of the BBC's arguments about the rightness of their coverage of Ali's death, despite hearing very little of it myself. That 'very little' bit was possibly enough. The bit I particularly remember - last Sunday's Sunday - gave a decent review of The Greatest's involvement with the Nation of Islam and the out-and-out racism (from him) which followed in its wake. But it suggested - as many others have suggested - that his racism softened over time. 

(I was going to recommend an absolutely fascinating comments thread at Harry's Place on the subject that made me think in a far more nuanced way about this aspect of the great man's life {not that I've reflected that here} but, alas, as ever, after seven days, all comments are wiped off the face of the earth).

The main target of criticism was the BBC One early evening news bulletin last Saturday. I saw it at the time and the complaints confirmed my eye-witness impression (which I felt I needed to check, somehow, as I couldn't quite trust my own eyes): that the BBC One had included no other story than Muhammad Ali's death on that bulletin. Not one other story. It, indeed, hadn't.

That would be my only quibble about this. Obviously Ali's death merited massive coverage but to exclude every other story from a major BBC One news bulletin is unusual, and possibly unprecedented (at a guess). 

The arrogant Toby Castle annoyed a good number of people - if Twitter's anything to go by (and it usually isn't). He certainly annoyed me. His defence was flimsy. Even I (I think) could have done better. My defence would have been: Short weekend bulletin, less than half the length of a weekday bulletin, therefore Ali actually got considerably less time than, say, Bowie, who died during the week and got - if I recall correctly - a good eight minutes or so more than Ali.

I don't entirely buy my own unimpeachable argument though. Surely the BBC could have spared a minute or so of that bulletin to give the rest of the news - Fallujah, the floods in Paris, the EU referendum - in brief, and referred viewers to the BBC One tribute to the greatest boxer of all time later that evening.

Why was everything else ignored? Wasn't it a misjudgement?


  1. To be honest, I think the coverage of Ali was a lot better than I expected. He was probably the best known person on the planet. So I think it's fair that there should be substantial coverage. They pulled some punches on his racist comments and specifically tended to avoid detailed discussion about what the Nation of Islam actually taught and still teaches. There were also attempts to smuggle in suggestions that somehow Islam had been the victim of unfair criticism and suspicion.

  2. At least the Beeboids didn't all start affecting a nickname for him they'd never heard of until the day before.

  3. I looked HIDEOUS, and they‬ cut my key point - that all human beings are equally valuable; so we should have a little bit less coverage of Muhammed Ali, and a little bit more coverage of some of the people who are dying who we can help - such as those facing the agony of famine in parts of Africa right now. Innocent people are suffering and dying because of the greed and corruption that's made our country rich - having a bit more news coverage of them would show viewers that we have the power to actually save lives. Instead we are shown hours and hours about 1 person.
    Ali was extremely famous, and I certainly didn’t think that there shouldn’t be news coverage of his passing; nor do I mean any disrespect to him or his family (that should go without saying). I was simply trying to make the point that, rather than dedicating SO much of the news to one individual, some of that time should instead be used to inform us about those dying because of Global poverty. They are pricelessly valuable human beings like Ali. They're born trapped in a life of unjust suffering, and when they die of famine or preventable disease, we ignore them - though we could have prevented their deaths. It's wrong. That doesn't mean that I don't respect Ali - as I stated several times. But Newswatch didn't broadcast any of that.
    The news coverage said that Ali was a campaigner for justice - if so, he wouldn't be happy that those people suffering the most because of injustice are almost never discussed on the news.
    I mean this – have a great Sunday : )

    1. You have a great Sunday too, Grace, and thanks for your comment.
      I don't know why but I'd always assumed Newswatch was broadcast live. From what you say it's clearly not.


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