Television reports must have a motive

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The Independent Online
Editors, programme makers and journalists have been under scrutiny about coverage of crime. Do we do too much? Do we add to people's fears? Do we glorify criminals?

We conducted research into early evening television news programmes and asked viewers to rank their interest in various topics. Health was number one - 84 per cent were very or fairly interested in items on the subject. Crime, including law and order, came second with 82 per cent, closely followed by the environment, weather and medicine. Politics and sport came bottom of the list. Now I'm not saying polls should dictate, or even suggest, the running orders of our bulletins, but we have to reflect public interest.

We have to weigh that interest against the knowledge that the reporting of crime may make people feel insecure. So how do we reconcile these apparently contradictory needs?

The BBC has a clear responsibility. We can never use crime as a way of winning a ratings battle. We believe we are there to inform - not to exploit misfortune needlessly. We must cover crime, but we must have clear reasons for doing so.

The limited length of our bulletins means we have to be selective. Some crimes are so horrendous, so extraordinary that we must report them. The discovery of the Gloucester bodies is a case in point. Some crimes have a wider resonance.

Let me give an example of the choices that are made. One day in March there were a number of possible items about crime for that night's news. The first concerned three youths convicted of murdering Les Reed, kicked to death when he tried to stop them vandalising of traffic bollards in Cardiff. The second was a Readers' Digest survey about fear of crime, showing that burglary caused most concern. Third, was the case of the lovers in the so-called lawn- mower murder trial being set free.

What went into the Nine O'Clock News? The Les Reed case was significant, as it raised the issue of when or how people should intervene if they see criminal acts. The survey into the causes of fear of crime was also reported because it threw light on people's perceptions of crime. The lawn- mower case, given prominence elsewhere on television and in the press, did not raise a significant issue and was not reported.

It is right that we are tough on ourselves, not just on what we cover but also on how we cover crime. We should think carefully about the prominence we give crime in news bulletins. We should be sensitive to the audience, who might not want details of a particular horrific attack, especially if children could be watching or listening. We should be careful in our language, not using unnecessary adjectives, hype or cliches. Above all, we should not be making crime appear glamorous. Slow-motion techniques and the use of music in news coverage are unacceptable.

By promoting an informed debate on the causes and consequences of crime, the media can begin to lessen the fear that restricts the quality of life for so many people. That is why I believe the time has come for journalists to re-examine why and how they cover crime. And that is why we are holding an internal review of our coverage to ensure we fully and fairly report the wider national debate.

Tony Hall is managing director, News and Current Affairs, at the BBC. This article follows a Guild of British Editors seminar on Law, Order and Rumour.