John Owen is an honorary visiting professor of journalism at City University and former chief news editor at CBC Television News. He is vice-chair of the British Journalism Review.
A matter of conscience 3
Rod Liddle - Hands off the BBC 6
Description in the media
John Owen - Now you see it, now you don't 11
David Bradbury - Of course it happens here
The greatest columnist?
Geoffrey Goodman - The write brigade 22
Bernard Shrimsley - Columns! The good, the bad, the best 23
Stein Ringen - Why the British press is brilliant 31
Quentin Letts - Still thriving, the daily sketch 39
Freedom of the press
Nicholas Jones - Can Alastair open closed doors? 45
Sondra M Rubenstein and Tamar Lahav - Uncivil society 52
Jeff Wright - The myth in the Mirror 59
Joy Francis - Where are the ethnic minorities? 67
BOOK REVIEWSMichael White on Joe Haines 74
Keith Waterhouse on William Davies 78
Julian Petley on media regulation 80
Sandy Gall on Christina Lamb 84
Peter Stothard on war and the media 86
Broadcast journalism has quite rightly kept its head down while newspapers
on both sides of the Atlantic have had a field day trashing the New York Times
over the Jayson Blair scandal that resulted in the resignations of its two top
editors. After all, television news has had its own share of scandals
involving faked documentaries and dubious reporting that managed to get
to air without rigorous fact-checking and sober second judgments.
In 1998, CNN's international reputation took a terrible beating after it aired a CNN-Time magazine exclusive investigative report – “Valley of Death” – claiming that U.S. forces had unloaded sarin, a lethal nerve gas, on enemy fighters in Laos. The Pentagon denied the story, and CNN backed down after finding flaws in its research. Ted Turner called it “the most horrible nightmare I've ever lived through”. In Britain, a 1996 documentary about heroin smuggling that earned eight international awards was proven by the Guardian's investigative journalists Laurie Flynn and Michael Sean Gillard to be a fraud. This Carlton-backed Central Television documentary faked key scenes that purported to show traffickers travelling from Colombia to Britain, and eluding authorities at Heathrow by swallowing heroin capsules and smuggling them in the lining of their stomachs.
And Sky News, after it won universal praise for the outstanding quality of its coverage of Gulf War II, lost credibility after having to admit that one of its correspondents, James Forlong, had faked a report that appeared to show cruise missiles being fired from HMS Splendid. A BBC documentary found that, in fact, the submarine had been docked at the time; that scenes involving the crew had been staged; and Forlong had used stock video footage of a cruise missile being fired. Forlong was forced to resign and Sky's head of News, Nick Pollard, acknowledged that the incident had been a serious blow to his highly regarded news organisation.
Yet it isn't these exceptional findings of television fakery that are the great cause for concern about established television news practices. Consider that another major casualty at the New York Times was its Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Rick Bragg, who was suspended, and then later resigned, for violating its official “dateline and byline” policy. What Bragg did was to claim a byline for a story that had relied upon information provided to him by an unpaid freelance. And Bragg also wrote the story in a manner that implied that he, not the freelance, was on the ground soaking up the atmosphere that had been detailed in the reports prepared for him. To the Times, this reeked of “editorial deceit” and justified a correction.
If what Rick Bragg did constituted “editorial deceit”, then every day in some television station or network, a reporter, correspondent, or producer is committing a similar act of journalistic deception. No one seems to care that this is a fact of life in television journalism. Whether in London, New York, Atlanta, Paris, or Toronto – and doubtless other news capitals – reporters do on occasion file reports for the nightly news or their 24-hour news channels that include footage and material that was gathered and edited by others. It is the news agencies, led by Reuters and Associated Press Television News (APTN), that most often assign their camera crews to face shelling on the West Bank or record firefights on the streets of Monrovia.
This is a perfectly legitimate role for these agencies, and few television networks without the resources of the BBC could survive without this hard news material. But where the nightly news, whether in the UK or the United States or Canada, does deceive viewers is when it pretends that its reporter is actually on location, instead of having compiled the report from its news headquarters or the listening post of London. Most viewers pay little attention to the subterfuge employed by many news networks who want them to believe that they do have a correspondent at the scene of the story, so rather than saying “Joe Bloggs reports from Monrovia”, they say “Joe Bloggs reports.” Or the presenter simply provides a “cold opening” to the report, and the reporter's narration just begins. Again, the only way a viewer can determine if the reporter is there is by noting whether he or she appears on location doing a “stand-up” or whether the report ends with a reference to a dateline.
Both CNN and the BBC say they try not to deceive viewers. BBC's deputy head of news gathering Vin Ray says the BBC doesn't have a specific policy about sign-offs and certainly wouldn't say: “This report from Ben Brown who is NOT in Liberia,” adding: “Should we say ‘in London' at the end of the pay-off (concluding piece to camera)? Are we giving the impression that he's on the scene simply because we don't say he isn't? I hope not, but perhaps we should examine the London tag.” CNN's senior vice president for Europe, Asia and Africa, Tony Maddox, insists: “We would never give a dateline on a piece from a place if we were not there. If a piece is voiced from agency stuff, or fed from a producer in the field, we would just pay off with a simple, ‘John Owen, CNN'.”
If viewers can spot the difference, then they are more sophisticated than we think they are. I recall a veteran American network newsman, then based in London, telling me that his family and friends living back in the U.S. were concerned about the wear and tear on his body from his apparent backbreaking travel to news hot spots. After all, they had been watching the nightly news during the past few weeks and noted that he had been in Africa, the Middle East, and the Far East. He didn't want to disillusion them by explaining that he had not left London or his new bureau, where he was voicing the material gathered for him by the news agencies and networks such as the BBC and ITN.
It is not as though the reporters who “package” the reports from London or New York enjoy this deceitful form of journalism. Indeed, they loathe it. They know that often what they are asked to do borders on fraud, but they are often too well paid to refuse the assignment, and many don't really want to risk their lives racing off to cover bloody civil wars in places sssuch as the Congo or Chechnya. Yet those who control the news budgets, the so-called “bean counters”, are quite happy about this remote reporting. After all, the focus groups that news managers frequently consult can't spot the difference, and news resources can be more effectively deployed for stories that are assumed to matter in terms of attracting audiences and improving ratings.
As far as the BBC's world affairs editor, John Simpson is concerned, the standards in television news have never been higher. In his latest book, News from No Man's Land, Simpson notes that TV news has “progressed” from “questionable roots to a settled honesty.” He attributes the changes to higher standards among journalists and spirited competition among broadcasters and agencies. Certainly, few correspondents can match Simpson's journalistic track record of covering wars and conflicts around the globe. And Simpson, supported by the unrivalled resources of BBC News, exemplifies the finest traditions of frontline, first-person witnessing. But not all correspondents maintain the journalistic fire in the belly that seems to drive Simpson, and which nearly got him killed in Northern Iraq. Some prefer to have their producers and cameraman/woman scrambling to record the key action footage and then later venturing into the gardens of the hotel to record a pithy “stand-up” wrap-up. Some who are inclined to do the often risky fieldwork may not have the freedom to do so because they are chained to a rooftop, waiting to service the demands of the voracious 24- hour news channels. The BBC's man in the white suit, Martin Bell, used to rail about this practice and argued that it prevented correspondents from doing real legwork themselves.
So being on location doesn't automatically translate into being any less deceiving as appearing to being there. One veteran correspondent decries what some refer to as the “look live” technique. For all that the viewers know, the correspondent is there at the scene or close to the events that are unfolding, but in fact may have pre-recorded a conversation hours earlier. The clue is that the correspondent doesn't throw back by name to one of the presenters in studio but instead simply concludes what he or she has to say. This is a dangerous practice, says the correspondent, who doesn't want his name used for fear of being accused of talking too openly about this dubious practice. He says that while the networks may believe that this is an alternative to keeping correspondents standing there hour after hour, in fact, it also risks having something that was said earlier overtaken by events.
The correspondent shares Bell's old-fashioned view that too much of what passes for informed talk is nothing more than time-filling babble that adds little if anything to a viewer's understanding of the story. “If you are constantly doing live broadcasting, you can't do any real reporting and develop the story,” he says. “It's just for theatrical effect, it's ridiculous, the lowest form of journalism, and demeaning when you are then told to record something that is expected to hold up for the next hour.”
Then there is the problem of television news appearing to be close to the action where a big story is unfolding, but in reality is so far away that those on the scene know less than the journalists back at home monitoring the news agencies' feeds and tracking various websites. It happened during the Afghan conflict, according to Vaughan Smith, one of the premiere freelance producers and cameramen. Smith recalls the almost surrealistic scene just inside Afghanistan across the Tajikistan border. About 2,500 journalists and technicians had turned a tiny, dusty village in the middle of nowhere into a journalistic city. Day after day, viewers back home got the impression that the network news teams were in the thick of things deep inside Afghanistan instead of what amounted to a film set. Smith said that the Northern Alliance soldiers who were there were more than willing to guide groups of journalists on horseback to a place where they would obligingly fire their weapons to provide the visuals that action-starved news teams required for their reports. Smith says that he has video evidence of several unnamed news groups urging the Northern Alliance members to do this.
Smith is quick to point out that not all journalists were content to do this. He says that about 250 made the hard trek by mule and horseback to get to the Kabul plains where things were happening. He said: “But should one get too worried about these things? One might argue that these devices aren't that terribly important. Do they really change the truth? But they are devices and they are deceptive. As a purist, one has to be uncomfortable about this.”
Writing in Press Gazette, Channel 5's senior programme controller Chris Shaw acknowledges that when he was a field producer (for Channel 4 News) during the Bosnian conflict, he once asked Croatian soldiers to “interrupt their lunch and fire off their artillery at Serbian positions.” He wonders aloud whether, in light of the Forlong dismissal at Sky News, his conduct was a “sackable offence?”
So is there a double standard for print journalism and television news? Why should a reporter of Rick Bragg's ability and reputation be drummed out of the New York Times for using techniques that broadcasters consider to be a standard operating procedure? At the end of the day, does it make any difference whether television news takes liberties with bylines that print journalism doesn't and that the New York Times claims is an infraction of its policy book? After all, most public opinion polls rate television news more trustworth than newspapers. And print has its share of critics in TV newsrooms, where print's over-reliance on anonymous sources and its often sloppy rendering of quotes are decried. But there is good reason to rid the news industry of anything smacking of deception, however trivial it may seem to many of the men and women who run TV news operations. The best network news organisations – many of them in Britain and across Europe – invest large sums of money in international newsgathering. They battle to maintain expensive bureaux – when others are closing them – and dispatch their news teams to cover stories in Africa, Asia, and the former Soviet Union. Mostly, they don't rely on “parachute” correspondents who are forced to arrive late after the story is big enough to make the nightly news and then to depart as soon as interest wanes at home. There should be clear blue water between the news gatherers and the news packagers, and the public should be told the difference.
Finally, there's a catch 22 for those broadcasters who keep trying to make the case for covering the world beyond the breaking stories. Their own focus groups often tell them that viewers zap away from foreign news. As a result, broadcasters locked in ferocious ratings battles can justify their judgments that the public doesn't want reporting from far away places that cannot be connected to international terrorism or 9/11. But those same focus groups react differently, says the BBC, when they see and hear master storytellers such as Matt Frei and James Mates find the words, the images, and the people to make them care. Denied this first-person reporting and fed too much pseudo foreign coverage, viewers – at least the discerning ones – will continue to forsake TV news and access the internet, searching out credible websites that do satisfy their need for well-told stories and solid information.