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X-Factor for Africa?

Peter Barron | 12:49 UK time, Friday, 15 September 2006

I’ve been at a seminar entitled: “Telling stories in an interconnected world: the challenge to broadcasting”.

Newsnight logoThe details of the discussion are off the record but I hope no one minds me quoting the title.

The challenge is pretty huge. We chatted, admittedly in the cloistered comfort of a Cambridge college, with all sorts of TV types, academics, and pressure groups about some of the big issues - climate change, China, the developing world - and the recurring concern is that fewer and fewer people want to watch programmes about that stuff.

As you’re reading this you’re probably one of the few, and I’m sure you worry too that in a digital age many viewers, particularly young viewers, simply tune out of news and current affairs, if the TV was even on in the first place.

The aim of the conference was - what to do about it.

I’ve always been deeply suspicious of the idea that you can sugar the pill of current affairs by coating it in a game show gloss. X-Factor for Africa anyone?

But many are convinced people are actually thirstier than ever for information and ideas about the issues they care about, and that they often think news programmes don’t deliver those.

One problem is that we have tended to report what politicians, countries, and international organisations are doing, when viewers are much more interested in what people are doing and in issues which transcend national borders.

By happy accident we did a bit of transcending this week with our programme on the best public services in the world. The idea was to look at what people - and okay, governments - are doing around the planet to improve their quality of life and see what lessons we could learn from that in Britain.

On Wednesday we featured healthcare in Cuba, transport in Portland, Oregon, education in Qatar and prisons in Denmark, and asked a group of interested parties, practitioners and - perhaps crucially -not Westminster politicians to discuss them.

The overwhelmingly positive response suggests that in this undoubted challenge we may be on to something.


People are generally interested in what their contemporaries in other parts of the world are doing. With globalization the world is a more connected place. Current Affairs and the challenges facing our globalized world are key issues for every intelligent person. So when these issues are presented logically and with clarity, there is no reason why these readers should be disinterested. Readers generally want to whet their appetite for more thought-provoking meaningful news and the duty of the media is to provide news accurately in insightful ways.

It seems that we've confused politics with news. Politicians in and of themselves shouldn't be 'news' - this sort of journalism, looking at what's going on in the world, should surely be the norm and not the exception.

How about a week in Africa or looking at various branches of law enforcement and wondering if we could do things differently there. How about examining the civil service and Qangos and what they're actually doing when they're not giving out press releases. How about doing a comparison between the major faith communities and how they respond to specific issues locally.

I'm 27 and I stopped listening to Radio 4 and watching the news because I can't find out what's really going on. It's either waffle or pontification. I now rely on multiple internet sites to get a gist.

Sugar coat, no. But the notion of incentivising, rewarding or at least boosting people’s tendency to engage – by whatever means work - is an interesting one, and one I happen to subscribe to.

Take my personal area of interest and activity, which is the environment. You have mentioned as a big issue climate change, and today was a good example. Some depressing stuff on the front pages, and grabbing the broadcast leads too. Your very own Ethical Man gracing my screen as I was rapidly losing my appetite for breakfast (not due to him, I stress, but the storyline itself, combined with a slight concern as to where my strawberry-dappled muesli and coffee actually came from).

Even with his noble example as inspiration (though I was struck by the intro piece that mentioned his [family's] efforts were (just) for a year - all back to 'normal' thereafter?) it came across as a bit ‘doom & gloom’ and 'well if that's the best we can manage taking it to the barest of bones, we're pretty screwed anyway’.

What struck me was how it came across overall as a pretty negative rough ride, and such benefits as there were erred more on the warm fuzzy, 'doing the right thing' feelgood variety, and not terribly much tangible on the personal front.

And when it came to the major problem areas that overhwelm the personal efforts, caused or overseen by business or government, it didn't seem too encouraging at all.

But maybe, just maybe, there are little pockets of proactive, positive hope that can cast light on a few trees in the woods, and where relationships can be established that do help, the environment... a bit... to serve to inspire, motivate and maybe even reward the individual, and just possibly can as a consequence be made to appeal to the short-term beancounters or pols who really can only see to the next fiscal or election.

Not all can afford a hybrid as a 3rd car or a solar panel. Low-energy bulbs, yes, though the fittings are an issue (and the bulb guys are coming up with adaptations daily... yay!). But while reusing a plastic bottle cap as Scout Woggle may not solve global warming overnight, if someone gets their head around having a bit of fun making rather than buying, repairing than disposing, and saving a bit of dosh and maybe a bit of time whilst doing something to save the planet rather than just talking about it, then that's a small step worth taking. Not to mention popping as many of such possibilities into storylines to help redress the balance what can often be some pretty heavy and hopelessness-inducing big issues.

So we'd love a mention for the likes of should you feel disposed. Making a very small positive difference to a big negative issue, and at the very least not costing anyone anything. How feelgood is that?

  • 4.
  • At 03:45 PM on 15 Sep 2006,
  • Paul D wrote:

There are two issues here - content and presentation. Sugar coating is frankly a complete waste of time. All it does is to reduce the amount of time available to deal with real issues.

This is precisely the problem with BBC1 News. By the time you have been through the 'over to you George, thanks Natasha' mentality, which is presumably intended to pander to the viewers with a limited attention span, the time for real news is curtailed. Squeeze it into a 25 minute time slot and you are lost.

This is tabloid television.

Of course you cannot discount the tabloid readership. They represent a large propostion of the electorate. Neither are they stupid and I have no wish to suggest otherwise. What I do suggest is that Newsnight has a responsibility to use the time and space available to it to broaden debate and introduce the kind of intelligent discussion which is lacking elsewhere. Would any other format have found time for an extended interview with, for example, President Carter? Where else could you take on a topic as large as public services worldwide and do it some kind of justice?

So dress your set as you think, ring the changes with the music, play with the graphics. That's fine. But please remember your audience. Dumbing down is not yet on the agenda but I suspect I hear rumblings in the distance.

  • 5.
  • At 03:52 PM on 15 Sep 2006,
  • One Eyed Owl wrote:

Why is it a "recurring concern that fewer and fewer people want to watch programmes about that stuff"? I don't think it's a problem - people get informed in a myriad of ways, long gone are the days when we all sat in front of the TV being told what opinion to hold. I appreciate that quality news programming is expensive and the larger the audience the easier it is to keep/justify good journalists on the payroll, however, how many "quality" news programmes does the BBC need to produce? Surely a repeat of the early evening news with an in depth addendum / insert would be just as valid as Newsnight? Anyway what would I know? No-one's told me what to think yet...

My condolences to the BBC and Mr. Raymond Baxter's Family.

You're absolutely right that people will no longer sit passively in front of a TV listening to demigods such as Paxman and Wark exercising their ego trips.

Interactivity is all, and BBCi is one of the better examples of that. So why not sack your programme staff and concentrate instead on your online presence?

In fact, I like that idea so much I'll pop it on to my weblog tomorrow, from whence it'll propagate all over the place in no time. That's how weblogs work and programmes don't.

Newsnight was OK once, but now just seems to have "lost it". The most interesting person on TV at present is Russell Brand on Channel 4. Don't laugh - LISTEN to what people are saying.

  • 8.
  • At 09:57 AM on 16 Sep 2006,
  • Terence Jones wrote:

"One problem is that we have tended to report what politicians, countries, and international organisations are doing, when viewers are much more interested in what people are doing and in issues which transcend national borders."

So on the one hand you get quotes from bland and often highly selective political & corporate "talking heads", and on the other you get highly emotional (but often poorly informed) opinions, or simplistic "victimology", all in the name of "human interest".

What often appears lacking is the content to enable people to think about the report and develop their own opinions based on reasonable quality information - Not just the "official truth" or pure emotional reactions.


  • 9.
  • At 07:18 PM on 16 Sep 2006,
  • Sid wrote:

I am 16 years old and i love to watch the news. Although I am one of the few teenagers in the U.S. who actually watches the news, I often erge people to watch the news. However the problem with most teenagers is ignorance, if you watch one news story and never look at other angles of it than it is pointless. Just because CNN, or FOx said it does not mean it is true, most of the time the idea gets skewed between a liberal or conservative view.

I strongly believe that one of the only reasons people watch the news is for the violent times, and tensions that are surpasing world affairs. Teenagers however are more caught up with certain "Teen Shows" which ironicly enoguh have nothing to do with most teenagers and only dramatize many into believing that there lives are just like the ones on the tv screen.

If you ask me, one of the only ways of getting teenagers into watching the news and being caught up with current events is for adults to better communicate with them. If you have a strong gap in communication then dont expect the best results. If you dont believe what I have to offer than compare the more recent immigration protests wich involved many adolecents whom where obuisly not caught up with current events, did not watch the news because if they did, then the majority of them would not have acted so cynical twords President Bush, Senetor Frist, and other politicians.

My point may sound odd, and off topic at times, but it is that a lack of comunication between parents and teenagers is what is causing thhis current problem. And even if parents do get to communicate with there kids on the news, current events, or such other things, most people already have a skewed view of some matters and those views get passed down, so one will never fully achive a non skewed view on current events for teenagers, oyu may get them to watch and lsiten, but it is a sort of "corrupted" viewing.

  • 10.
  • At 03:13 AM on 17 Sep 2006,
  • ngum ngafor wrote:

how about bringing up children in africa (just about any country will do)? i think the uk could learn a lot from africa on this one.

  • 11.
  • At 02:11 PM on 17 Sep 2006,
  • Mark wrote:

News has little real value to most people where the majority are uneducated or miseducated about the geopolitical history and reality of the world. In the US, many college students can't find their own country on a map of the world while those who are educated often get a point of view deliberately skewed by their politically correct left wing professors. In other nations, things are often no better with education slanted to butress the dictatorship in power whether it is of a political, social class, or religious stripe. Whatever news of the world filters in is seen through a prism which badly distorts its signifigance even to the point of dismissing critical details which are contrary to the prevailing dogma. The notion of a free and open discussion of many points of view is often nonexistant in reality even where it is extolled in theory. In a classroom, you'd better parrot back the professor's own prejudices on his exam if you expect a passing grade. Dissent is least acceptable where it is most necessary, right in the intellectually tyranical realm of the pedant.

  • 12.
  • At 04:08 PM on 17 Sep 2006,
  • Jennifer.Watts wrote:

To: Peter Barron,Editor,Newsnight.
Hi, I am happy that you enjoyed your
stay at CAMBRIDGE, as opposed to Oxford, to where my relatives seem to have matured. It sounds as if you had an interesting time, and I hope you will come back full of academic ideas,lightly seasoned,and we can have something different from boring old politics. Not that your presenters are at fault,they come up tops.
I do not know what budgets are given to a programme such as yours,however(I think my favourite word in writing, I can never bring in moreover or nevertheless!) if you can do a programme on Africa, choosing your own parts, it would be stimulating. World News have just done Zimbabwe, from RSA, because of the restrictions to the BBC in Zim. Just a suggestionl, perhaps, the West Coast; the Eastern islands, Madagascar or Zanzibar, or the island terrority given back to us by the Americans, thank you America. They exiled all practically all the people, who have now returned. Does Panorama take on these big assignments, or can you? Also, are you the Editor of Newsnight, Scotland as well. I can trace Scottish accents in your presenters, and it would be "nice" to have something, not necessarily true politics, but un-employment issues or the like from Scotland. Having left you with a big headache, bigger than Ethical Man, does he always have to wear his green suit? Not that it does not suit him in his title. In anticpation of a large subsidy from the BBC, Jennifer W.

The upcoming positive yet disruptive changes in the world are not going to begin with the politicians. Rather, those changes are going to begin with individual innovation. To the extent that the media is able to identify the individuals that are bringing those innovations into play, and explain the significance of those changes before the politicians and industry adopt them -- that is news. In reality, politicians rarely invent or innovate anything, rather they exploit movements that have already begun. The media simply needs to be digging deeper, beyond the press releases.

Surely, there must be something positive that is foreseeable in Africa. It is simply a matter of identifying it and explaining it to the media consuming public.

  • 14.
  • At 04:36 PM on 18 Sep 2006,
  • patrick omari wrote:

Some of the messages here are really uplifting. It is true that people look at Africa is a very strange way. Partly because the media has zeroed in on negatives instead of striking a balance between informing and educating. Ironically, most international agencies (including journalists-actually they like hanging out in the trendy Nairobi night clubs) working in Central and Eastern Africa live or operate from Nairobi-Kenya.

But the sort of information they file back here in the west is unbelievable skewed and it does not enlighten those who have not travelled to these countries. In the contrary, they write or twist facts to conform with the stereotypes. If they are not the ones doing it then it must be their editors back here. A few example can help explain my argument.
A few example can help explain my argument. When the Somalia Parliament was being inaugurated in Kenyan soil in 2005, most UK papers (they few that bothered to w rite) wrote 20 or so word-boxed-item in the cluttered pages. Yet the story how poor countries like Uganda and Kenya had helped nurture the peace process at the expense of their own poor people would have made a good reading. But typical of the stereotypes, when the Somali MPs disagreed and engaged in running battles, the journalist in Nairobi found it newsworthy to not only write longer articles about it, but they showed TV clips of the chairs flying. The clip was repeated several times.
One other example is the popular corruption beat. There has never been serious news items on the victims of the corrupt regime. How about a balanced story on how honest people survive in Africa? How about a nice story or clip showing the poor farmers who dig large tracts with hand hoes from 6 am-6pm? These people are poor not because they are lazy as the african myth goes but because they do not get the government support that we take for granted in the west.

I wonder whether the western media community based in Africa know that people pay school fees right from nursery school, they pay medical fees, buy drugs at retail price, there is no sate welfare/subsidies, no free council housing, no incapacity /unemployment benefits, no electricity or running water etc. Yet these poor souls soldier on. Their poor children going through a tough education system still make it to university. They could spur and encourage our over-protected kids in the west to work harder in school if their story was properly told. Instead of writing negative stories these positive should make news.

Patrick makes a really interesting point and reminds me of the old journalistic saying that too many hacks forget:

A good journalist overturns stereotypes while a bad journalist enforces them.

And a report out in April by the Commonwealth Broadcasting Association said that all we do is enforce the stereotype:

"Even the Make Poverty History campaign and the Live 8 concerts, which enthused millions of people, appear to have inadvertently contrived to confirm a stereotype of Africa as a continent on its knees and added to a sense that nothing has changed over the last 20 years."

All broadcasters and other media really need to pull their finger out and develop ways to engage viewers on developing world news, and in a way that goes beyond using flashy graphics. At the moment the media is just another institution letting the developing world down.

  • 16.
  • At 03:08 AM on 21 Sep 2006,
  • Sal Cowdrey wrote:

Generating or holding interest for viewers - especially the youth - in electronic media news or current affair programmes is indeed a matter of concern for effective and unabated research for every broadcasting organization. Simply topicality or simply exciting/ sensational will probably not do - or, for that matter, just about people around the planet, as editor Peter Barron views, or about doing "accurate news in insightful ways".
Whatever the target/objectives, the E.Media does have a responsibility to 'educate' the vewers, particularly in the non-developed world, in the under-pevileged society (such as the children of Darfur), at whatever costs (!!) Efforts toward bettering a life in this beautiful but 'poverty'-laden world, toward making us more humane, toward building bridges to happily co-exist with understanding, friendship, love & peace, are what we all need.... what the media indeed can best make. I for one would want to see on TV less of violence, bloodshed, indignity - and more of positive human activities & contributions - certainly, these on produced "close-ups" have a magnified effect, even when appearing to be accurate, logical and interesting !
Fear of the mind and 'terror' of today will be better shed or alleviated not by closing (blowing) up but by sustainable pursuit of effective ways & means toward peace.

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