Archive for the 'media' Category

London to the faraway towns

8 March 2015

The story about the radio producer Charles Parker, who made the radio ballads in the 1950s and 1960s, is that he wanted to hear the voices of ordinary people on the radio, and the invention of the portable Uher tape recorder gave him the chance. His politics collided with new technology to create a new way of working – a way of working that included the songs of Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger. For each of the radio ballads he would vanish from Broadcasting House for weeks on end, recording scores of hours of tape, to the chagrin of his employers at the BBC. They eventually fired him, despite his winning hatfuls of prizes for his innovative and radical work.

As Parker later recalled, in the days before the tape recorder arrived, the producer would drive into the country in a “bloody great Humber,” record people talking onto disc, transcribe their words, and hand the resulting scripts to actors. Well, lawdy luv-a-ducks, what a lark!

I came across Parker’s work, which was then out of print, while working as a current affairs producer for Radio Four. I’d read about it in one of the many critiques of media that were current in the 1980s, and promptly borrowed the recordings from the BBC Library. (They’ve since been re-released by Topic Records.)

After I left the BBC I wrote my own critique of the dominant discourse of Radio 4 News and Current Affairs, which if I recall correctly was headlined “London calling.” And the notion that “this is London” runs deep through Britain’s news and current affairs culture. It’s telling that sport and music can move to the BBC’s new centre in Salford, but news and current affairs is located more centrally than ever, TV and radio reunited in a back-to-the-future kind of a way at Broadcasting House, W1A, 1AA.

And this whole stream of personal history, long-repressed personal and media history was triggered by listening to James Robertson perform his monologue, “The News Where You Are.” No, it’s not a coincidence that he’s a Scot. The world just looks different from the far away towns.

The image of Parker interviewing at the top of the post is from the Library of Birmingham, and is used with thanks. The Charles Parker Archive Trust can be found online here.



Fitting up the news

30 January 2010

Thanks to my colleague Tomi Isaacs for alerting me to Charlie Brooker’s fine parody of the typical television news report. It made me realise how little has changed in TV news since I worked in it in the 1980s, except that the graphics are better and cheaper satellite time and technology means that ‘live’ has become so over-used that it is meaningless. (The ‘live’ two-way with a correspondent standing outside a deserted government building in the late evening is surely a target for Brooker for another day.)

The English murder

14 October 2009

theforceIn The Decline of the English Murder, written 60 years ago, George Orwell reflected on how murder reflected the times. The celebrated pre-war murders typically featured respectable men who had got themselves into unrespectable affairs with women, often of a lower social class, who were done away with by poison. The wartime murders which prompted the essay, in contrast, were done by an American Army deserter and his British girlfriend, who seemed to kill their victims – almost existentially – because they could. The randomness of war re-enacted as a celebrated crime.

The thought is prompted by Patrick Forbes’ documentary The Force, shown on Channel 4 this week, about Hampshire Police investigating a body found burned beyond recognition in the village of Dummer. This murder also reflected its times. The victim was Polish, the murderer Bangladeshi, who had worked together in an Ibis hotel in London and had started having an affair. Her mobile phone had been used to delay suspicions about her disappearance; his by the police to piece together his movements around the time of the murder. Fragments of the story were pieced together from CCTV footage, most compellingly when the police traced the film which showed him dragging the suitcase with the woman’s body in it to his car. But the breakthrough came from traditional policing, knocking on doors and handing out photos. And the motive was also traditional: he killed her out of jealousy. As a by the way, some of the housing conditions seen or reported during the film were quite shocking.

I need to declare an interest; I work with Patrick Forbes’ wife, and she had reminded me the programme was on. But – in contrast to most of  the factual programming on British television – the film used the people and the pictures to tell the story. Even the rhythm of the events – with only a small amount of programme-maker’s artifice – provided the cliff-hangers. And what a relief all of that was; no celebrity presenter, no urgent voice-over, and none of those horrible post-ad break intros which now seem compulsory at Channel 4, in which you’re told, again, what the programme is about, which have the unintended aesthetic effect of making every programme seem the same (“I’m Kevin McCloud and I’m on the trail of the 18th century aristocrats who transformed the way Britain thinks about design”. Please).

In other words, it was a proper documentary. It’s repeated late on Friday and there are two more to come, on the next two Tuesdays. [Update: There’s a reflective review in The New Statesman.]

The picture at the top of the post is courtesy of Channel 4.

Dog bites man

30 August 2009


When I was a trainee journalist, we went through that exercise where we worked out what news was. “Dog bites man” happens quite a lot, so obviously isn’t news. “Man bites dog” is unusual, so probably is.

But of course, it doesn’t actually work like that. When Rupert Murdoch’s son James, now responsible (among other things) for protecting and promoting the commercial interests of one of the largest pay-TV operators in Europe, uses a lecture platform to make a meretricious, and substantially misleading attack on the BBC, it is widely reported as ‘news’.

And without getting into the detail (though Will Hutton has a good critique), James Murdoch has worked in the UK long enough to know the difference between a publicly-funded independent broadcaster and a state-controlled broadcaster, but this is exactly the sort of smearing elision that you see all the time of the Murdoch-controlled Fox News. (Blogger Tom Freeman described the speech as “laughable hypocrisy“.)

What actually happens in a newsroom is that the daily news agenda is driven by the news editor’s “forward diary”, which mostly details the comings, goings and pronouncements of the powerful and the official. Reporters are assigned as a result of this to cover the expected stories, most of which are more about dogs biting men than the other way around. And even ‘unexpected’ news stories, such as earthquakes, have their own expected dynamics; eight days or so afterwards, inevitably, there will be a miraculous rescue of a survivor who’s been trapped in the rubble. Michael Frayn captured this predictable aspect of journalism, hilariously, in his novel The Tin Men.

There’s a better quote about news gathering, from memory, from a disaffected member of the White House press corps: “What reporters do is to hang around the corridors of power waiting for important people to lie to them.”

Good men die like dogs

29 January 2009


I’ve been tidying today, and came across a photocopy of something someone sent me just after I left the TV business. I can’t replicate the typography, but I think you’ll get the drift:

The TV business is a cruel and shallow monkey trench, a long plastic hallway, where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs.

There’s also a negative side.

[Update: Later on I investigated the history of this quote.]