Saturday, August 25, 2007

Who Culpa?

Jeremy Paxman's address to the TV biz is worth reading in Newsnight: The James MacTaggart Memorial Lecture

I almost didn't, as what got trailed with the first para, on top of the homage to Gordon (Ramsay)'s favoured communication techniques, it all came across a bit too much as 'so what if it isn't real?'.

But as one progresses there is more of a mea culpa.

And while such as the following are no more than many have already mentioned, I do wonder if it will get beyond just being floated as yet another wheeze: 'I don’t think it will do for senior figures in this industry to stay hunkered down, occasionally lashing out at young people in the business or setting up inquiries of one sort or another.' Certainly not when those at the top who have presided over where we are now remain there. Maybe it's the Chas Clarke School of 'The best person to resolve the cock up is the cocker-upper in chief' way of thinking. Not that that worked for him.

'Whoever was responsible should be sacked.' No sh*t, Sherlock. 'Should' is one the funniest words in the English language in this regard.

But other worries remain. For instance I paused at this: 'I heard the other day of a production company which is sending its producers and researchers on a re-education course in which they’re instructed that if an interviewee does not say on camera what they have said in research, they may not be reminded or encouraged to repeat what they said previously. It would, they were told, be construed as coaching witnesses. This is ludicrous.'

Er... why? There's a lot in those words 'reminded' or 'encouraged'. And to me any attempt to get onscreen, or justify, what the broadcaster wants as opposed to what the interviewee says strikes me as not blooming well on.

And there is a slight whiff of 'who let them into the club?' to the critique of such as YouTube and blogs. I agree it's all totally Wild West out there, but then that's what happens when those in 'mainstream media' decided to play fast and loose with what was shared, and how it was shared, themselves. At least with a blog you do have a fair idea of where they are coming from, over time you can establish trust (especially that they are not bowing to commercial, political or 'career' pressures) and, more often than not (here for instance), you get a bunch of links to the source material (often diverse 'facts' where there is contention) to help you make your own mind up and not have it made for you. And a page on screen can run as far as required to cover all that's necessary, and not be constrained by 'that's all we have time for' (which is usually to either make time for the skateboarding tortoise or to avoid delving beyond the unqualified soundbite that will ensure journalistic immortality).

There are key admissions, if not exactly startling in their insights: 'To put it simply, people at the top are less concerned with content and a lot more concerned with bottom lines. There are too many people in this industry whose answer to the question what is television for? is to say ‘to make money.’' Let's not forget, A BBC salary is 'money'. And you make a bigger one by delivering the measure by which those above (and bestow career enhancements) make more money or gain power: ratings.

Plus the corporate bottom line ' ..analysis takes time, and comment is free'. It's a reason. Not a very good excuse. Much like the raft served up ('time pressures', 'inexperienced juniors', 'work placements' to field nasty lawyer letters. Well boo-hoo. If you haven't got what it takes to do a good job, don't try and do it until you have fought to resolve the shortfall. Maybe a few more researchers could be hired on a few lower celeb salaries?) to justify what was basically pretty rubbish practices by those who feel themselves immune (with, it seems, some justification. How many have actually been properly held to account on the woeful tally of the last few months?) from consequence.

I don't know if 'there has been a catastrophic, collective loss of nerve.' I'd say a lot of nerve is well in evidence, to miss the point that not telling the truth, and seeing no real problem with 'enhancing reality' (for no better reason than, at best, to suit the narrative, or worst, an agenda), is simply 'how it's done' these days. I'm looking at a letter from SKY to Ofcom that says, in essence, that it would set a bad precedent for career and/or professional reputation-influencing facts to be presented as they actually happened... in a reality show. The medium really sees feeding its needs now as more important than delivering a worthwhile message.

And while I agree with the quoted statement, let me suggest another version: 'if you spend your time telling people what you think they obviously (to whom?) should want to hear to the exclusion of fact or balance, pretty soon you will lose their trust. Or, worse, their viewing figures (remember the salary measure, chaps. Or, in the case of the BBC, the fee that pays the inhabitants of the gilded towers). Sorry Jeremy, you are down there already with the tabloids. At least they don't try and pretend they are much else than what they are any more. The Number 12 example is apt; and look how politics is viewed as a consequence.

The word trust is used a lot here. You have to earn it. And what has been built up in years can be lost in an instant. As has occurred. Maybe it can be regained, and if it can it will take time. But with the evidence of what - and who - I see before me to make this happen... I ain't holding my breath. Too many people. Too many vested interests. Too many layers. Too much 'precedent'. Too much protection. Too much greed. Too much self-justification.

I keep watching because I really don't have an alternative. But boy, you guys are making it harder to make it worth my while by the day. And, one of these days, I might just stop. At which point I really ask why I need to pay for something I can't use.

A lot of what gets done still is good. And more power to those who do it. But I leave you with this. Having played 'who, why, where..' ping pong with the latest talking (if not saying anything) head and either got a juicy answer (unlikely) or the equally career-enhancing record series of deflections, how many times do you and your media colleagues return, again, and again, to hold them to it or insist of getting one (and then hold them to it?). I'd suggest seldom. And they know it. In the current state of things it's just a game both have come out with what they need by playing without need for an actual result, even if those watching may remain none the wiser and still very poorly served by two entities in theory tasked to do so. The process is now totally dominant (as it is with government) to the product.

So... ‘And who, precisely, do you presume to speak for?’ Good question. Worth remembering. You go on to answer a slightly different one. But the real answer to this?

Good luck with rediscovering the purpose.

ADDENDUM: Note post 71. And the several who thought, as did I, the washing powder analogy ludicrous.

Paxman voices concerns over BBC

Times - Froth away, Paxo - but it’s viewers who will put TV in order - Didn't he used to work for the BBC too? And I'd be keen to see how the public can do any more than it does already.