LONDON — Catastrophic events like Tuesday’s terror attacks in Brussels expose the strengths and weaknesses in broadcasters’ news operations. How well did they perform?
Many networks went to great trouble to get their anchors, reporting teams and crews to the Belgian capital in time to present their main newscasts that evening. But media commentator Steve Hewlett, who hosts the BBC’s “The Media Show,” is not convinced it added much value for the viewers back home, especially as, after the initial appalling events, not a lot happened.
“You can see why they feel the need to be there, but in terms of the journalism and what they are able to deliver by way of new and speedier information, better analysis and more insights, it is more limited than you might imagine,” he says.
Broadcast news has to compete now with rapid online news operations that can harness social media far more quickly and effectively than they can. “The TV news channels, to some extent, are restrained — you might think rightly so — by the need to be impartial, but also they all set out their stall to be right,” Hewlett says.
Wednesday brought a salutary reminder why news outlets — Variety included — need to be wary when following fast-developing events. A story was whizzing around the internet, and was eventually reported by the TV news channels, but credited to Belgian media, that the so-called “third man” at Brussels airport had been arrested. It later turned out to be untrue.
So while Hewlett admires the speed of online news operations and social media, he still sees the TV news teams as having an important role to play in providing “news you can trust.” “Sooner or later, I want somebody to tell me — in terms that I can believe and rely on and not have to worry about — that this is what’s happened,” he says.
One issue for the main news programs is that many viewers will have already seen whatever video images of the attacks and their immediate aftermath — mostly poor-quality smart-phone clips — are available on the rolling news channels and news websites. Other viewers will not have seen them, so broadcaster risk losing the attention of one half of their audience if they dwell too long on recapping events. But where the news programs win out over the news channels and websites is in delivering a narrative.
“Creating a news program with a beginning, a middle and an end, i.e. that works as a piece of linear television in a limited slot, and bringing to bear the highest quality of analysis, boiled down to its essentials in an intelligent but digestible form is quite a different skill to managing rolling news,” Hewlett says.
For media watchers in the U.K., this issue is particularly pertinent as the BBC’s news operation has been subject to a sustained process of “efficiencies” designed to cut costs. “The question is whether in the course of the round of efficiency savings they have taken out strategic capacity, which you do see by its absence,” he says. However, Hewlett doubts whether the effect of these cuts would have been observed in the Brussels coverage as “they’d have thrown the kitchen sink at it.”
Proposals to save money include taking the BBC News channel off air and put it online, or merge it with the BBC Global News channel, which serves audiences outside the U.K. One danger of merging the two news channels, Hewlett says, is that “you run the risk of underserving two audiences who want something different.” He adds: “The problem with putting it online is that it just loses traction and loses salience and effectively cedes the ground to (pay TV operator) Sky. When you see an event like in Brussels, for all the inadequacies, you kind of think the BBC has got to have a rolling-news channel.”
Hewlett says that the competition between BBC’s rolling news channel and Sky’s own news channel is good for the viewer. “Having two news services that compete with each other to be right, to be first, to bring new things and new voices, to find new angles, to do things differently, that’s all good. If you just had Sky or BBC they’d be devoid of competition. I don’t have any real doubt that the service would be worse.”
One way to add value to the coverage of big stories in the days and weeks that follow is to commission fast-turnaround documentaries that gives a major event a narrative. Hewlett has experience of this as he is the former editor of the BBC’s investigative news program “Panorama.”
“It is possible to add value by bringing narrative and context, but in order to make any sense of that you need people on the ground doing the journalism,” he says.
While the news channels are very good at throwing resources at a big story over a short period of time, major broadcasters like the BBC used to invest far more in their networks of foreign correspondents doing the ground-work that pays off when a big story breaks.
In the news channels’ coverage of Brussels last week, the handling of the logistics, in terms of getting teams in place, was first rate, but the quality of the journalism is in doubt.
“The news channels put a lot of effort into getting there. They did a very creditable job in always difficult circumstances, but was there really as much effort on the ground finding things out, finding people, pulling stuff together that’s already there? I lost count of the number of times I heard stories being credited to the Belgian public broadcaster.”
An ace card that the BBC was able to play in the competition to advance the story was the broadcast on Wednesday of a special edition of “Panorama.” Following the Paris attacks last year, the program’s editor Ceri Thomas had the foresight to dispatch one of the best journalists specializing in terrorism issues, Peter Taylor, to investigate Islamic State’s terror network in Europe.
Taylor’s report put the Brussels attacks into the context of Islamic State’s strategy and tactics with regards to Europe as a whole, but with a particular focus on Belgium and France. It included interviews with senior European intelligence officials and police officers, former jihadists, and parents of jihadists.
“In so far as they had got a very timely program that gives real added value and insight into the background to this atrocity, they made their own luck,” Hewlett says. “That’s the BBC making their own luck in the sense that it is an important story in general, because of Paris and Belgium, and all the rest of it, they know Peter knows his stuff about terrorism, and in particular Middle Eastern terrorism, although he used to be an expert in (terrorism in) Ireland and Northern Ireland, and ‘Panorama’ editor Ceri Thomas has quite wisely thought this is a story we should really be looking at, so they had Peter working on it for weeks if not months, and they end up in a position where they can pull it forward and end up with a highly timely, massively value-adding program that’s right on the money,” he says.
“That’s not news-style reactive ‘get it out there,’ do the best you can in difficult circumstances. That is proper long-form journalism. That’s devoting reasonable resources to a story.”