Tuesday, 4 August 2009

The Today Programme

I write this in the hope that the BBC has some cunning computer programme, or paid hack in the basement, that surveys blogs looking for any mention of their programmes.

I had to drive to Birmingham early yesterday morning so I found myself listening to the Today Programme for longer than usual. It’s worth doing now and then just to confirm that they still have their usual faults on display.

The news of the day seemed to be the announcement of Barclay’s bank’s trading results. The results were expected at ten past eight, so do we get an item telling us that – no, we get a piece telling us what the result is expected to be and we get it several times in the hour before the actual statement.


Why is it necessary to tell me what they think it is going to say before the official announcement? What is wrong with waiting till ten past eight and telling me the actual facts?

Yet again they reinforce the notion that opinion is more important than fact, that assumption is more important than evidence. It seems to be impossible to announce anything on the Today programme without first of all having some BBC pundit tell me what the announcement is going to be and what it is supposed to mean. There is a clear message that I, the listener, must be incapable of thinking for myself; that I am incapable of understanding anything without being told before-hand what it means.

The programme obviously has massive contempt for its audience. Actually that may not be misplaced; if you read the comments from people who email in, you can see that most of them are one liners from people who have already made up their mind, whatever the facts. Most of the comments are inane, I won’t quote examples because all you have to do is log into the BBC and look at comments on almost any programme on almost any day and you will see what I mean.

Whoops, there I go doing what the BBC does and telling you what to think – read some of the comments anyway, maybe I’m wrong, and you can write back to me and correct me and we could have some genuine debate.

So, end of first rant, I hate pre-announcement and pre-prejudicing of the news.

My second complaint is their lack of numeracy. They get in such a mess about very simple issues of numbers. Yesterday there was an item about reporting of child abuse – the numbers of calls to a child-line have gone up since the Baby P case. The reporter did seem to have cottoned on to one key question – have the actual numbers of child abuse cases gone up or has there been more reporting? The problem was that he seemed incapable of asking the question clearly enough. It’s a simple question – has the proportion of false alarms gone up? That’s what he was trying to say but somehow the simple word ‘proportion’ seemed to escape him.

Why might calls have gone up as a result of publicity surrounding baby P?

First of all each case might be reported more than once, could be quite likely, given that the authorities in the baby P case kept ignoring the abuse.

Second people could be more aware of the issue and report at a lower level of suspicion – again quite likely given all the blame whizzing around the media – people might report their suspicions earlier just to be on the safe side in case the shit hits the fan.

There is a third and serious possibility – abusers might be doing their abuse more often because they conclude that the authorities were so lackadaisical in the case of baby P that the chances of being caught are low.

Fourth it is possible that authorities are taking action earlier, or in less serious cases because they don’t want to end up in the newspapers.

Finally it could be that until baby P there was under reporting and that has now been corrected to some extent.

So what we need to know is how many real cases are there that have been investigated and found to be real, compared to how many have been reported; and are the cases on average more or less serious?

Why do we want to know this? Most likely because we wish to be reassured that child abuse is being dealt with effectively. The ideal result is to find that the proportion of false alarms has not risen and maybe that the seriousness of the cases has, on average dropped a bit. That would tell us that the public were being vigilant but not frivolous, and that social services were on the ball and a bit more alert than previously and it would suggest that there was not some vast reservoir of unreported cases out there that were still unreported.

Did we find that out from the Today interview – no chance - all we discovered was that there were more calls from the public to the response line and we were left with no idea as to what was really going on.

These simple questions arise whenever one looks at surveillance data of any sort. If the numbers of some event have gone up we need to know whether it is because we have got better at noticing and counting or whether there is a genuine increase. These questions arise whether we are talking about epidemics, or crime figures, or breast screening, or car accidents – the sort of stuff that is the bread and butter of the Today programme, so why can’t they have someone on it who knows how to understand this sort of data?

These two stories both say something about the Today programme and it’s mission in life. I imagine, if asked, that they would say they were seeking to inform the public, I expect there is some clause in the BBC charter to justify their existence.

It is called the Today programme and it goes out before 9am. That makes it inevitable that most of the things that may happen today have not happened yet. So what can they do? They could report in a dead-pan way what was scheduled to happen over the next 24 hours. That might be a bit boring, so they spice it up by telling us what they think will happen and what they think it might mean. It sounds OK when put like that, after all if it were boring their audience would drop and because we know it hasn’t dropped it must be OK? No, that doesn’t follow because we also have to think about what sort of society they contribute to and what it might do to us all. If they convince us that opinion matters more than facts then we end up with a society that never learns and such societies become extinct. The same thing probably happens to societies that don’t value numeracy.

If we are all doomed to live in our own opinions then nothing will get better and it’s all the fault of the Today programme.

Am I going too far in that conclusion – well I once heard John Humphreys (the doyen of the Today programme) speak at a conference – he said there were two rules in journalism first simplify, and then exaggerate. Over to you John.

No comments:

Post a Comment