The Independent on Sunday has obtained a printout of an anonymous and often angry correspondence on the BBC's central computer system questioning why last Thursday's Nine O'Clock News did not lead on the M40 minibus crash but began instead with a report on the Queen's Speech to Parliament. ITN carried the accident as its lead item at 5.45pm and 10pm, as did the following day's tabloid papers. Apart from the Financial Times, all the broadsheets led on the Queen's Speech. The Telegraph, Times and Independent carried the crash as the second story.
This may seem an arcane argument between professional journalists. But it illuminates much wider questions - by no means confined to the BBC - about the role played by news in the increasingly fierce competition for television and newspaper audiences; its choice and treatment; and what some critics see as the 'tabloidisation' of much of the British media, in which stories of 'human interest' are replacing topics which have traditionally been seen as more important and significant at the top of the news agenda. The background in this particular argument is the BBC-ITN struggle for the lion's share of the 13 million viewers who watch the two bulletins.
The messages on the central Basys computer system used by news and current affairs teams in Broadcasting House, were sent to a running file named 'The Nine O'Clock is crap'.
Mark Damazer, editor of the Nine O'Clock News, said last week that it had been a 'marginal decision' to use the Queen's Speech as the lead item over the coach crash, but it had been chosen to go first because John Major had unprecedentedly placed Northern Ireland at the centre of his agenda. 'Otherwise we would have led on the coach crash: there would have been no shame in doing so because it was an extremely resonant story. On most days it would have been a very respectable lead.'
THE DEBATE BEGINS
Here are some views expressed by various contributors to the file:
'Everyone says News At Ten is crap, but it still knows which stories go first. Was I the only one who thought that leading the Nine with the Queen's Speech . . . and then Belfast . . . before the M40 crash, was bizarre, to say the least?'
'This bizarre decision was shared by the Telegraph, Guardian, Times and Independent. Why should the Nine take the tabloid approach?'
'Because tabloids are read by more than 10 times as many people as broadsheets, and we're supposed to be a public-service broadcaster, i e, accessible to a large part of the population. It's not taking a 'tabloid approach', for God's sake, it's just about acknowledging what ordinary people (i e, those outside Westminster) want to know about. How can we turn to the Government and ask for a licence fee on the basis that we serve the public when we ignore what they care about in such a haughty and patrician manner? The decision last night was appalling.'
'If people had lived and worked in the real world instead of treading the sheltered path from Oxbridge to the BBC, they'd know what's the top story. You don't learn the knack - decent journalists have it; intellectual pretenders don't'
'I agree with the original entry: it seems to me the best yardstick for judging news importance is to ask yourself what contemporary historians will see as the most important event which occurred on this day. The death of a dozen people in a road accident must rate higher than the Queen's Speech.'
'We are not 'contemporary historians', we are journalists employed to tell the public what is going on in the world. As you've obviously never worked anywhere that involves contact with normal human beings who get upset when 10 (and more) children die, let me explain something to you: if you'd made that decision in any radio or newspaper newsroom I've ever worked in, you'd have faced the sack. You're a bloody disgrace, the whole lot of you. Go back to school and learn some basics.'
'I can assure you, in the SCRs of Oxford last night, the bus crash didn't get a look in.'
'A few points: 1. The crash was a tragic accident. It was not in the same league as the Warrington bombing which as well as being tragic had repercussions for the future of Northern Ireland. 2. Not everybody on the Nine agreed with the decision to run Warrington second. 3. The judgement doesn't have to be what are they talking about down the pub - if it was, then we'd lead every bulletin with who should be the next England football manager.'
'Patronising bastard. If you ever spent time communicating with your audience instead of just handing down lofty missives, you'd realise people's lives are rather bigger than that.'
'I did spend a couple of hours in the pub that night, and Graham Taylor was the main if not only subject of conversation.'
'I don't know how many Nine producers you know, but I can assure you the great majority lead exceedingly normal lives. Most spend their time just like you - shopping, taking the kids to the park, going to the pub, etc. Some of us even talk incessantly about football. Very few of them are 'news-obsessed'. Some of us just happen to think that when the Government sets out what it's going to do - i e, the myriad number of ways it's going to screw us over - in the next year, it's important enough to lead a news bulletin with.'
'The vast majority of us have a great deal of journalistic experience - newspapers, radio and TV. Any day or night editor of a broadsheet who ran the crash as front-page lead ahead of the Queen's Speech would have been hauled up before his superior faster than you could say 'tabloid'.'
'Maybe true, but with a broadsheet you attach your own sense of 'importance' to the stories on the front page and probably don't feel aggrieved if what you consider to be important isn't the front-page lead.'
'You are a complacent soul. The Nine has no humanity. Our loss, and, sadly, the audience's too.'
'Oh, so it's humane to tell eight million people all about how 10 children died in a road crash. You may have a point in the arguments above, but don't try to drag humanity into it.'
'Re the above: I'm glad someone from the Nine has had the courage to stick his/her head above the parapet. Usually when you screw up in this way - and are castigated for it in hearsay - the silence is deafening. But none of the points you set out changes the basic fact, that for an enormous number of viewers last night your decision was bizarre. The crash was not just a tragic accident - it was a major story, with significant safety implications for thousands of schools and millions of parents and children.'
'Safety implications? Like what? Like only qualified minibus drivers should be behind the wheel of one? Big deal. If anything trivialised the deaths of these children, it was the sickening array of experts and politicians wheeled out to tell us that the crash was avoidable and what the Government should be doing about it. Rubbish.'
'So Clapham was just another train crash? There are many important issues raised by the minibus crash, like seating design, seatbelts, whether tachographs should be fitted to prevent driver fatigue, whether teachers are adequately trained . . . safety regulations are only ever altered after appalling accidents like this one expose weaknesses. Examining these issues is hardly 'trivialising' the accident: quite the reverse.'
'This was a traffic accident - a horrific one, a tragic one. But unfortunately there will always be traffic accidents. We can't regulate or legislate them away. And by implying that we could, we are looking round for someone to blame for the deaths of these children instead of admitting to ourselves what it is - one of those horrifying twists of fate that could happen to any one of us as we walk or drive down the street. So none of that twaddle about safety implications. If this story deserved to be top of the Nine (and many obviously believe it did), it deserved to be there simply because 10 children died.'
'Up to a point. There will always be traffic 'accidents' if people make errors of judgement; roads are badly designed; drivers overestimate their abilities to control the vehicle or stay awake longer than they should. You can learn from every 'accident'.'
'The Queen's Speech has been endlessly speculated upon for weeks, and contained no surprises, even for political illiterates. And can you tell me what was so new about the Northern Ireland story last night that it warranted running second ahead of the appalling death of a dozen schoolchildren? I'm sure you journalists on the Nine are thoroughly experienced, walk with your children in the park etc, but the reality is you've spent too long in Birtland, and it's turned your heads. Anyway, if you're going to stick to management dogma, you're out of date - don't you know the latest buzzword is 'accessibility', i e, making programmes and bulletins ordinary people can empathise with? Christ, you sure as hell failed that test. Buck up your ideas or make way for people who know how to run a news bulletin.'
'Well, we've been pulling in between six and eight million viewers for the last five years. I don't think we're doing that badly, thanks.'
'You still got pissed on by ITN, though . . . and, as you well know, your audiences are declining. Those people who still tune in specifically for the Nine do so because the Nine O'Clock News is a British television institution . . . if you carry on the way you did over this crash they'll soon learn you're not worth a piss in a pot.'
'A new correspondent writes: Maybe all this talk about which story is the lead proves only one thing: that everyone who contributes to such a discussion is out of touch. I am tempted to ask if, in the real world, anyone gives a tinker's cuss about which story was first, second or third on the Nine. The stories stay with people. The order does not.'
'Loosen up, boys and girls. Stop intellectualising and go with the story that has the most immediate impact. Humanity counts for a lot. Who could not be moved by the death of all those kids?'
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