What would BBC news look like if the rule book was thrown away?

We’ve come a long way from the days of finding our news from street vendors shouting ‘Sixth Tele’, leaving the Northern Ireland Teletext page running in the corner of the room or waiting for the next Radio Ulster bulletin to find out why a road was closed or a bang was heard echoing across Belfast.

The game in 2015 has changed beyond recognition and will, of course, always continue to do so. Modern news has become more immediate and is fleshed-out with opinion, boiled-down to click-bait emotion, spun around to find blame and often pitched to feed overly-simplified division on social media.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, so isn’t it a waste of time complaining about the very nature of news? Perhaps not. Modern news brings us some particular features: instead of news percolating into a balanced picture we find near-anonymous callers opining about dubious allegations, politicians given more time than ever to stir the pot in whatever direction suits and social media users instantly filtering the results down through their own prisms of left, right and other, green, orange and none.

Thankfully modern news, through the BBC, may also have brought us a unique opportunity.

Since our BBC News – and I’ll openly say that Radio Five Live is, to me, worth the licence fee alone – is already a highly-established news source, perhaps we have a way to combine this with the changing nature of the BBC , the unique way it is is funded and the broader Murdoch agenda to seize the moment by creating a reinvented news outlet that not only stands out from others but also stands above the rest in a new way: authoritative, different, essential and uniquely valuable.

How? By taking a stand for news awareness and standing outside – and above – the news ‘game’. By explaining to the listener not only what is known about the story but also what isn’t known, what the limitations of the sources may be, what the bigger picture looks like, how news works and what that means to the listener. The BBC could even become freely and openly aware of the limitations and of criticism of its own efforts and formats.


Before we take a closer look, let’s consider one very popular BBC news format as example: the phone-in show. Since the lines between news, opinion and entertainment have clearly fractured beyond recognition, we’ll go ahead and call the phone-in show a news source.

In Northern Ireland, a phone-in show will often set or change the wider news agenda within minutes and will directly form a large part of the news-day for many people: earlier this year the Nolan Show on Radio Ulster reportedly celebrated an 18% increase in listeners, with the combined figures of the Nolan Show and Talkback dwarfing the ratings brought in by Good Morning Ulster:

Weekday radio shows

*The Nolan Show, Monday-Friday, 9am-10.30am: 133,000 listeners

*Good Morning Ulster, Monday-Friday, 6.30am-9am: 90,000 listeners

*Talkback, Monday-Friday, 12pm-1.30pm: 73,000 listeners

By way of comparison, physical newspapers have declined to a fraction of these figures while, to take one expample from social media, the Irish News has a total of 33,519 followers on Facebook.

Undoubtedly popular then, these phone-in shows bring their own style and limitations to news and, therefore, to the way an evolving story is brought to the public. This, in my opinion, brings some unique concerns.

A local news story is already, by its very nature, like the iceberg seen by the Titanic’s crew: a summary of what is known and can (or will) be openly said by the various players and agendas with the huge shadow of the unspoken and unknown below. Add the immediacy, anonymity, emotional presentation and shock factor of a phone-in show to this picture and it raises some significant questions. While the same could be said of a story unfolding on social media, a phone-in show adds the weight of being aired on a major broadcaster to this mix.

But why should we be concerned? Like the approach beloved of the format, lets play devil’s advocate:

– The style of presentation: Listen to a story unfold during a phone-in and you will often hear it being moved to a position of either emotional appeal or an angle placing blame on a large organisation, making the actions of the organisation the topic of the phone-in and not the actions of the players (or even more importantly culprits) involved in the actual story. A common enemy – perhaps even the softest and easiest target – is created, which moves from tackling the core issues behind why the event happened, who was responsible and how to prevent it happening again to the the less constructive but fertile ground of anger and blame.

– The simplified story: There are two sides to almost every story in life. It could be argued that, as above, the format doesn’t allow a full and rational explanation of what is known and – more importantly – what isn’t known. Callers commenting on the initial version of an allegation or story, which may turn out to be incorrect, will often be convinced in their own minds that they are commenting on hard fact.

– The campaigning: While there have been, undoubtedly, great things achieved by phone-in shows on behalf of people with very real and often very tragic concerns, it is also too easy for the format to make an emotive demand for funding of ‘x’ while not addressing the issue of what happens when the money is – robbing Peter to pay Paul – moved from ‘y’, or even digging into the root causes and difficult bigger questions about the funding gap.

– The unaccountable callers: The agenda or background of a caller adding their version of an event or making claims are unknown to us. While the agenda of a caller who is an MLA (some of whom spend a great deal of time taking part in such shows) may be known, any caller will – human nature being human nature – see the event through their own prism and agenda and, as we have previously seen, both callers will free to make (legal) claims safe in the knowledge that if the story unfolding turns out to be untrue or vastly different the whole matter may never be mentioned gain and they may never be challenged.

– The question of motive: While someone can easily say they were – to create an invented example – refused entry to a pub due to their football shirt, the rest of the story and the real reason for the security staff’s actions never be known. We do know that social media will be alight with the alleged version of events presented as fact very quickly, leaving the question of motive unanswered and very possibly unsuitable for broadcast as the venue – being an accountable company, not a private individual – will be hesitant to put their version of the person’s behaviour on the record.

– The restricted organisations: As previously discussed an organisation will be limited in the response it can give, for reasons of privacy, accuracy, legality and remit, often leaving the organisation at the centre of a phone-in controversy working with one-hand behind its back and with no choice but to weather the storm with their unspoken version of events unheard.

– The one-way traffic: I’ve noticed in the past that – any time I’ve been listening – anyone who criticises the phone-in show format is quickly shut down. It is right that concerns about such an increasingly major news source in 2015 can be aired.

From statements made by politicians playing their same old character ‘roles’, and commented on without context, to breaking stories being unfolded and steered by the unaccountable with an unknown agenda, my concern is that our understanding of the line between news and entertainment is blurred further and further today and consumed without widespread understanding of the limitations of the medium.

Phone-in news becomes – with the edge of quick coverage and a dramatic sheen – about things that might have happened being told by people who might be telling all they know, filtered by their own agenda and supported by responses from organisations who won’t be in a position to tell the whole story. The whole cocktail being unaccountable in that a story can be dropped, unclarified, when the next headline call grabs attention instead.

Ultimately, while the news game has changed, the phone-in show has drawn up a completely new set of rules.

My concern is that a youngster taking to the street in anger over – say – a dubious, manipulated and still-unfolding identity issue may not know the game being played.


Every story has a human face and every youngster angered by a dubious claim against their community isn’t going wait for or hear the health warning. This is why media awareness, in a country where the consequences can be extreme and where an emotive issue can end up in A&E, feels like an issue to me.

In an ideal world, in the middle of the parade of opinions and speculation, I’d like to hear a cynical, news-savvy, rational and independent person frame phone-in stories with a summary of what is known but more important what is not known, what can’t be known and why. Someone who can interrogate the truth, not feed the blame or stroke the emotional angle. Even someone who will return to previous stories with updates and – better still – hold those to account who previously jumped on a bandwagon suiting their agenda.

Why not, then, take this to a further extreme and use the unique nature and funding of the BBC to change the very way it reports the news?

If news is becoming near-instant, more padded with opinion, overly-simplified and divisive on social media then why not have the BBC become home to a very different type of news by doing two things.

Firstly, by championing an annual News Awareness Week looking at the modern formats for news as well the pros and cons of each. This could include talking to people about whether they’ve been caught out by a cynically-spun story on social media, mislead by a quotable person stirring emotion or if they’ve unhappy with a phone-in debate moving away from the root of a core issue to a more emotive angle.

Secondly, by taking a stand for a different type of news: we’ll call it ‘news awareness reporting’.

Some examples are below, you may have your own to add:

– News awareness: Why not stand outside the game. Instead of merely being part of how news works, openly talking about how an unfolding story works and the limitations this will bring.

– What isn’t known: In the early days of a story what isn’t known seems more important that what is known. Why not spend more time on this?

– The sources: Referring to the sources of statements made in an honest way. How often has the politician backed a dubious claim? What is his/ her agenda? What’s their track record, since it is already in the public domain? What’s wrong with saying ‘well, they would say that’ or, to use another example, making clear that we know nothing about a phone-in caller or their agenda?

– The organisations: What can’t the organisations say and why? Why not explain this?

– An allegation: Who has made the allegation? If they have a history of being an allegator how did those claims turn out in the past? And why not return to stories based on allegation which were found to be untrue and update the public as well as hold those who ‘stirred the pot’ to account?

– Pause for thought: A balanced review of all ‘sides’. A rational, even cynical, news-aware and self-aware summary.

– Digging deeper: By tackling issues at the root and leaving blame culture and emotional angles to the phone-in shows.

– Limitations of the format: By being open about the weaknesses of the format used, even referring listeners to coverage elsewhere on the network. A phone-in show could – for example – welcome calls about how the story has been handled by the show that day.

– Biased BBC: It amuses me that all ‘sides’ of an emotive situation will claim that the BBC have been biased against their view. They can’t all be right. The BBC could welcome and discuss criticism on-air. Why not commission a report into specific coverage and involve listeners in the results. All within the show itself. News awareness could, in this way, mean open self-awareness in a very frank, engaging and valuable way.

Some of the above approaches are, of course, already seen within various BBC news output. But combining features like these into reports and formats as standard – and there’s no doubt the BBC have the banks of talent to do so in a slick way – the organisation could tower above as something unique in a crowded, competitive and changing market.

The benefits to us all? If we look at a news story and the news game as an iceberg, made of what is known, what isn’t known and what can’t be said, modern news is creating waters for young people to chart that are increasingly divisive, opinion-based and over-simplified.

As emotive issues can spill onto the street and divisive views can be easily manipulated, the BBC is in a stand-alone position to be boldly different. It can use its unique strengths to stand above the news game and give the next generations of news consumers the tools to steer their way through to the best possible view of the events around them.

In short, instead of competing within the same game as everyone else, the BBC could tear up the news rule-book and operate above the competition in a very different way.

Conor Johnston – @CJohnstonNI – writes about subjects including culture (especially film/ cinemas), identity and media. He also blogs at www.freerangewords.net

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