Watching them watching me

The BBC foreign correspondent David Shukman had always taken his viewers' responses on trust. Then he came face to face with a focus group.
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"Rubbed shoulders with Kate Adie, then?" Of all the opening questions I had expected during the potentially unnerving experience of having my television news reports dissected by a focus group, that was not one. There was a roar of laughter around the table and much nudging of elbows.

"Rubbed shoulders with Kate Adie, then?" Of all the opening questions I had expected during the potentially unnerving experience of having my television news reports dissected by a focus group, that was not one. There was a roar of laughter around the table and much nudging of elbows.

I was up against the well-bonded strength of the early shift from the main Post Office in Bath, seven men and one woman. They had been picked by the organiser of the focus group, Greg Philo of the Glasgow University Media Group, because "they don't get much harder than this". We often talk about "the viewers" in the abstract; now here were some for real.

We were in a bizarre situation. The session was being held in a conference room in one of Bath's elegant terraces and, not unlike some improbable Monty Python scene, we had eight postal workers arguing about Angola - yes, Angola, that obscure African country which is easy to pronounce, hard to remember and seldom on-air. The postal workers were guinea pigs in a pilot programme sponsored by the Department for International Development. The aim is to explore how people understand - or misunderstand - the developing world and, because of television's pivotal role in that, the BBC is participating to find out how best to engage viewers in "difficult" subjects.

I was picked as a guinea pig too because earlier in the year I had persuaded the Nine O'Clock News to send me to Angola. It had not been easy.

The war has gone on for 25 years; the fighting is inaccessible; travel is virtually impossible; and everything is incredibly expensive. Angola is a TV editor's nightmare. Worse, as described in the recent study on TV News for DFID, Viewing the World, it is just the sort of place that is seen as a "ratings risk".

Editor Jonathan Baker took that risk, however, and I came back with two reports which were broadcast in May. The first was about how even more landmines are being laid in a country already cursed by the weapons, reversing all the optimism generated by Princess Diana's campaigning visit to Angola in 1997 and by the subsequent treaty banning anti-personnel mines. The second report explained how corruption was furthering the conflict.

I had strong material and newsroom feedback was very positive. Now it was the turn of "real people" to judge.

I watched the postal workers as they watched the reports being played. A consensus had emerged among them that Angola was too distant to care about. "There's so much going on, I never know which country is which," said one. "I'm here not there, it's in one ear and out the other," said another. The DFID report had found viewers "desensitised" to Third World tragedy. How would this group react? I was nervous as the video rolled; I won't deny vanity played a part but there was also the hope that my work would pass that basic but frequently ignored journalistic test of being understood.

The nudging stopped, as did the tapping of training shoes on the conference-room carpet. A couple of mouths seemed to open at one of the more horrible scenes. First reactions were of shock: "sad story", "sick", "very sorry", "eye-opening". One man remembered a shot of three sisters who had all lost limbs to landmines. Another, the scale of the corruption.

But had they understood what was going on? The question was put by Greg Philo who chaired the session. This group grasped the main points - "the armies creaming it, the poor people struggling". So far so good. But did they care? Not really. "You soon forget these things." "If you never leave Bath, it'll never affect you."

Greg Philo's view is that TV reports could be made more relevant if the connections with viewers were made more explicit. He asked the postal workers if they realised that they were indirectly involved in the conflict. Angolan oil, bought by western oil companies including BP, could theoretically end up in their petrol tanks and Angolan diamonds, smuggled out by UNITA rebels, could be used on rings they may buy. I hadn't made that link but it made the group sit up.

"There'd be mayhem if people knew that," one man said. "The politicians wouldn't allow it, they'd lose their ratings and get kicked out."

Attitudes were shifting. Viewing my reports had kindled interest in Angola but it had taken talk of the possible connections with Britain to raise real concern. "They don't give you that train of thought," one woman had said in an earlier session. Suspicion of censorship followed: "maybe they don't want us to get the link". "Are you influenced to say what you have to say?" the postmen demanded. I replied that the only censorship was exercised by us and only concerned the horror of the pictures we showed.

"Could you say it's the Government's fault if it was?" Yes, if I had proof. The discussion had come alive. These were people who could follow the argument and did not want to be short-changed or patronised. Muttering about being kept to a tight duration in my packages cut no ice. For this group, foreign news, not always the favourite of the newsrooms, was becoming stimulating. Imagine: Angola being discussed over the mail-sacks. More of these sessions are planned, and the result will be to generate an industry debate over how we present news.

I realised I hadn't done too badly. The postwoman in the group whispered to a colleague that she didn't know my name. He didn't either, but she asked for my autograph anyway.

The writer is a world affairs correspondent for BBC News