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Under attack

Ben Rich | 17:40 UK time, Friday, 8 September 2006

There are two problems with having your programme attacked by Martin Bell.

BBC Six O'Clock News logoOne is that he's a distinguished former BBC foreign correspondent, so the defence of muttering "what would he know about news programmes anyway" is unavailable.

The other is that he is a pre-eminent prose stylist whose polemics are laced with cutting phrases - in this case describing the Six O'clock News as a "parody of something between Down Your Way and Nationwide".

His ire had been raised by our decision to send Natasha Kaplinsky out for a week to places ranging from Dorset to Glasgow to present a series of segments on social change under the banner "The Changing Face of Britain" - you can watch some of the reports by clicking here.

He took up his pen after watching the first, in which we went to Christchurch in Dorset, the town with the most elderly population in Britain, to report on what might be the future for many other parts of the country. The segment contained a report from Richard Bilton, a piece by Natasha looking at what the town was like decades ago and an interview with the 71 year old Mayor of the town about what it was like to live there.

Now I would be the first to admit that this wasn't the strongest of the five stories we covered in Six on Tour - and if I'm honest the interview with the Mayor was a bit too local in content - but there is a more general point that Martin Bell was making. Should we be out in this way - sending a presenter to cover the growing elderly population (or the exodus of young people from Wales, Polish immigrants doing the jobs Asians used to do in the Midlands, town dwellers moving to the country, and Glasgow's record in dealing with asylum seekers as we did on the other days) in this way, when there are people dying in Afghanistan, Iraq and, on Monday, a British tourist shot in Jordan.

Of course we did cover events in the Middle East well ahead of Six on Tour. But his question remains valid - why did we devote eight minutes a night to being on the road like this? There are a number of answers I would give. Principal among them I would say that the issues we covered were important and that they sometimes get lost in among the more urgent daily stories.

But we did have a wider purpose than that - to get our programme out among some of the audiences we serve to report on things that were happening locally, but had some greater national resonance. Our reporters and Natasha also appeared in the local newspapers and on local media, providing more potential viewers with a reminder of the service we offer. And our overnight research showed that our report on the elderly was the programme item people most wanted to know more about.

As a man with a full BBC career behind him, who looks set to continue using his talents for many years to come, I might have hoped Martin Bell himself would have agreed with that.


  • 1.
  • At 09:25 PM on 08 Sep 2006,
  • Mick wrote:

Personally, I thought your "Changing Face of Britain" reports were very interesting and educational to watch. Your reports looked at a range of contentious subjects which are affecting millions of people around the country, so it was good of you to examine such issues.

Also, Martin Bell commented on how busy a news day it was on Monday, but if I remember correctly, the Six still gave quality coverage to the death of a British man in Jordan and the deaths of British troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The answer is obvious, white suits for all BBC editors and no one will argue.

  • 3.
  • At 03:37 PM on 09 Sep 2006,
  • Nick Stranger wrote:

I agree with Martin Bell. Having the awful Natasha Kaplinsky 'out n about' made the programme look cheap, very white, very English-centric, and as if its conceeded the proper news battle to Channel 4.

I gave up watching BBC tv news many months ago, cause the 'news' on there is just consumerist crap. 'Special Report' that lasts less than 2 minutes??? Don't make me laugh.

Although I no longer reguarly watch, I had to tune into the see Princess Natasha out of the studio...but turned off after less than 30 seconds, cause it was just so embarrassing.

The sad thing is,that the presenters, the crew, and the editors, all know that it was a BIG mistake.

Perhaps Alagiah should jump ship now, while he's got a shred of credibility left.

  • 4.
  • At 09:26 AM on 10 Sep 2006,
  • miika wrote:

why did we devote eight minutes a night to being on the road like this?

I think the answer is obvious, that it's incumbent upon the media to report things that at times are important events in the lives of its viewers from the viewer's perspective, not solely the media's perspective.

Once you start concentrating solely on the spectacular, the little things that have a spectacular effect on a small number escape notice, and eventually escape participation.

  • 5.
  • At 03:32 PM on 10 Sep 2006,
  • Robert wrote:

I don't watch the Six O'Clock News. I find it is too 'tabloid' and rather patronising at times. There are too many lame live links and reporters in front of huge screens 'lecturing' the viewer. I think an extract was used in 'Power of Nightmares' of a reporter with the words 'Terror Threat' in huge letters behind him? Which pretty much sums it up.

I would like to see a move away from live reports and 'rehearsed' live interviews to crafted, edited reports that are packed with information. Sometimes my heart sinks when a programme switches to a reporter live and you can see he/she has three people queued up waiting to say their piece.

I have been in that situation with the BBC and, although what I said were my own words, the whole thing was rehearsed so they knew exactly what I was going to say. I believe that takes the edge off everything. It may be live but it lacks life.

It is much better to pre-record, let people talk freely and then edit together the good bits. Shots of what they are talking about can be cut in over their voice, making the whole experience more interesting for the viewer.

  • 6.
  • At 05:29 PM on 10 Sep 2006,
  • Mark wrote:

First off, I don't know anything about this program or Martin Bell. But it seems to me legitimate questions for journalists to ask, investigate, and report on are; where are we?, where were we before?, how did we get from there to here?, and where are we likely going? In other words to take stock of society. Perhaps Mr. Bell would be the first to complain if BBC had never done such a story but let history take its course unnoticed and unreported. It feels very strange defending BBC from its critics, it has so many faults one can justifiably address, it seems a shame to waste time and energy criticizing them on a subject so innocuous in the greater scheme of things.

  • 7.
  • At 03:20 AM on 11 Sep 2006,
  • Jenny wrote:

Martin has become something of an old grumpy, but he was right in this case. The BBC has other departments and divisions responsible for publicity, and for local coverage. Local and regional newsrooms need the encouragement of shots at reports on national news to keep them from churning out unrelieved total dross, not for national reporters to drop into their area and take those chances away.

In any case, please don't take away yet more news minutes, narrowing the news agenda even further, by playing with being a magazine format. If you have some spare time then widen the agenda - there is a great deal of vital news out here, of national or international importance, that gets little or no coverage.

However much airtime is provided for news someone always makes sure the agenda never widens. Instead there is more sport, more showbusiness, more frequent weather, more discussion of the usual topics, or more repeats of headlines, or everything repeats more frequently. Now you're adding local visits in the national news, when we already have local news.

You said it all: "a local show for local people" - except it was the national news.

The problem - for you - with Bell's criticism is that he is right. You just can't watch the Six for decent news coverage - it's too light and fluffy, and then goes off on inane tangents like old people by the seaside when British soldiers are getting shot to bits.


When I lived in Newcastle, the BBC's (and ITV's) "national" news was always viewed by me as being International and London based news. This was once compounded by a national weather report that focused on thunderstorms over Kent.

To be honest, since I've been in London since 1989, the effect has lessened somewhat, but I do still note a complete lack of stories from around the UK that don't involve people dying.

  • 10.
  • At 03:06 PM on 11 Sep 2006,
  • alan wrote:

I think you could quite easily do away with the local news and replace it with in-depth pieces of this nature,giving time for the depth of national news Martin Bell,(and I) would like to see.South Today has to be the most trivial news program I've ever watched.

On the same day in the same blog, one editor is lambasted for focussing too much on the Westminster bubble and not enough on the stories that matter to 'real people', and another editor is lambasted for focussing too much on stories that matter to 'real people'.

D'ya ever think you can't win?!

  • 12.
  • At 12:03 PM on 12 Sep 2006,
  • John R wrote:

The question isn't whether the BBC was justified in looking into these issues of social and demographic change - it was. The question is whether the right place for this was the Six, when there were far more urgent stories which could have used the extra time.

  • 13.
  • At 11:16 PM on 12 Sep 2006,
  • Simon Allen wrote:

I gave up watching ALL news on TV many years ago. It was started by CNN who created the "we can tell you all about everything in 60 seconds" idea. This was then swallowed by ITN and then the Beeb thought that they had better jump on the band wagon too.

I listen to Radio 4 and read the Independent. I check BBC News on the Web at least twice a day and so I can pick the important stories and avoid the rest. Newsnight when required.

Occasionally, I see the start of the main BBC or ITN news on the box but it only takes a minute for me to see that it is still too sensationalist.

Lastly, the addiction to guessing and speculating what the news will be is a habit that everyone must break. 'Today' on R4 is a prime sinner.

  • 14.
  • At 04:37 PM on 13 Sep 2006,
  • David Willis wrote:

Martin has often complained in his books about the lack of local news coverage within the UK. Most news items seem to be about international issues.

The reason for this?, well explosions and bombs and wars and death are dramatic news, an interview with a 70 odd year old lord mayor about an ageing poulation is not dramatic.

One point that seems to have been missed is the "Nationwide" statement.

I remember Nationwide quite fondly.

Maybe there is a news market, after the 6pm bulletin and after the 6.30 local news, perhaps only a couple of times a week. But a national, local news program to give people a wider perspective of National news.

It would be a good platform for the sort of reports that have caused so many comments.

  • 15.
  • At 06:54 PM on 13 Sep 2006,
  • John Smith wrote:

The answer would appear obvious to me. The articles are valuable information about Britain but are not really "news". They are merely a snapshot of currently ongoing events in an endlessly shifting country that has had more internal migrations and local shifts in culture in the past 10,000 years than there are threads in one of Mr. Bell's suits.

Yes, they should be covered. They should be covered in a lot more depth and for many more regions. But they should NOT be on the news. You could run a weekly - maybe even daily - series in a dedicated timeslot for such stuff.

Actually, the ideal would be to have a dedicated time-slot for a program that specifically focussed on trends and patterns that are so gradual or so much a part of how things are that they can't be considered "news", but which might - or perhaps are - snowballing to the point where an "event" of major news value will be inevitable.

Such a program would offer the kind of context the news simply can't provide, reduce the footnotes and explanations needed in newscats, and potentially give people a little more warning before social powder kegs explode.

That would seem to be far more useful - and far more sellable to audiences - than a few minutes in which nothing useful can be said but which deprives the news team of precious time to cover major stories and critical events.

  • 16.
  • At 09:31 PM on 13 Sep 2006,
  • J Westerman wrote:

I am sorry peoples. Natasha Kaplinksky is quite a dish. The rest is background.
Martin Bell and all those who missed the point are getting a bit long in the tooth.

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