Media: It's all very well for John Simpson to plead against the `ghettoisation' of foreign news at the BBC - he's part of the problem
Monday 01 September 1997
Then, all of a sudden, their carefree demeanour evaporated and Auntie's propagandists were looking awfully pale in their multi-coloured leisurewear...
The reason for their sudden mood swing was John Simpson. Without any prior notice or consultation with the protectors of the corporation's public reputation, the BBC's Foreign Affairs editor had taken it upon himself to shuttle up to Scotland to do a session at the festival. You could almost hear the spindoctors' nerves jangling as they filed into the BBC's Edinburgh studios for this unscheduled event.
What the hell was Simpson going to say? Was he going to have a go again at the BBC's "dictatorial" management, as he did recently in the Radio Times, only this time less lightheartedly? Maybe he was about to do a Martin Bell and quit broadcasting?
No chance. Simpson is the man, remember, who organised a petition to save John Birt's skin when the Director General was under pressure to resign over his tax affairs. In public conversation with his old pal Roger Bolton (now an independent producer and presenter of Channel 4's Right to Reply) Simpson made it clear that he wants to stay at the Beeb.
He did make a few `off-message' remarks about staff morale, but he swiftly neutered these with a humorous follow-up.
The main purpose of his impromptu appearance in the Athens of the North was to lobby against foreign news becoming `ghettoised' when the BBC launches its 24-hour news channel later this year. The danger, as he sees it, is that dispatches from abroad will be "shovelled off" to this round-the- clock service, where they will be seen only by news junkies.
In his warning blast Simpson pointed out that Panorama had adopted a more domestic agenda and that the foreign content in Newsnight was "quite small now". He then parodied news editors "sitting in their cardigans with cigarette burns down the front, asking `Would my mother in Barnsley be interested?' " and posed his own question: how long before the 9 O'Clock News adopts a narrower agenda to shore up its ratings?
It is an important issue. Democracy depends upon an informed citizenry. We need to know about what is happening elsewhere not only if we wish to influence the shaping of UK foreign policy, but also to keep track of how other countries manage their domestic affairs and deal with problems and challenges which affect us all.
As Tony Hall, head of the BBC's News Directorate, has expressed it, "the BBC's job is to paint the big world picture - to remind us of other countries, cultures, forces that shape our lives." This is especially truein an era of economic globalisation when what happens in far away factories of which we know little can affect livelihoods in this small island.
We don't want the UK to become like the US, where the major networks now only manage to run a foreign story every other day. The upshot is that foreign policy debates in the world's most powerful state are conducted almost exclusively by a small, informed elite - federal politicians, diplomats, academics and specialist journalists - with the tacit consent of a largely indifferent, and ignorant, public.
But the elite cannot completely ignore Joe Six-Pack, because every so often he stops swigging his bottle of Budweiser and demands that something is done about something horrific he has seen on TV (such as starving babies in Somalia).
As Claude Moisy, former chairman of Agence France-Press, observes in the latest issue of the US journal Foreign Policy: "Politicians and diplomats have learned that television is an emotional medium and that popular sentiment whipped up by television images can be an inescapable element of foreign policy."
Sometimes I wonder whether BBC's Foreign Editor and certain of his senior colleagues realise the essentially emotional nature of TV news. I'm not saying they should stoop to the attention-grabbing antics of CNN: we expect analysis as well as action on the 9 O'Clock News. But they do have to face up to the fact that there is a lower boredom threshold for news from far away countries of which we know nothing. At present, night after night, they file tedious and formulaic despatches which have even the most internationally-orientated news junkies reaching for their remote controls, or their kettles.
Often, it seems to me, quite a few of the BBC's numerous foreign correspondents are keen to project themselves as members of that small educated elite who are are highly informed about world affairs and have deigned to give the great unwashed of Great Britain the benefit of a mere fraction of their knowledge.
Few come across as more patrician, or pompous, than John Simpson. No one would ever make the mistake of imagining he comes from Barnsley. Simpson will have to drop his pomposity - or adopt an off-camera role - if he wants to stop ratings-driven BBC news editors consigning foreign news to an egghead's ghetton
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