THE DECLINE AND FALL OF THE BEEB

PLASTIC FLOWERS AND MAWKISH SENTIMENTALITY | April 17th 2008

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The BBC is a national institution, supported by public funds. It has a duty to deliver public-service information. So what's with all the soft news and sentimental clichés? Stephen Hugh-Jones is losing patience ...

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Last Sunday wasn't the most eventful one in world history. But it wasn't short of news either. In the United States, the Democratic infighting takes a dramatic new twist with Senator Obama's guns-and-religion gaffe. In Britain, there was open talk of Labour disenchantment with Gordon Brown, the party's prime minister. In Italy, a general election looked likely to bring Europe's most colourful politician to power. In Africa, regional leaders chose to sit on their hands as Robert Mugabe's thugs clubbed their way to keeping him in power, yet again. Food riots in Haiti symbolised the soaring price of the world's basic grains. In Washington, top officials of the seven leading economies gave grim warnings about the credit crunch.

So what does the British Broadcasting Corporation pick on to lead its evening television news? Five young British women have been killed in a bus crash in Ecuador.

Minute after minute--four or five, I'd guess, in a 20-minute bulletin--the report drags on, complete with (justifiably) sorrowing parents, the usual tributes (equally justified, let us trust) and the plastered-on solemnity of journalistic grief in which the BBC is now so expert. For five unlucky travellers: OK, five, at a blow, young people, on a gap-year tour bus, eager to do good, in a far-off foreign country. Yes, it's sad, but five is, on average, roughly half the number of Britons killed on British roads every day of the year.

And this is the editorial judgment of a once-serious broadcasting organisation, still the premier news-gatherer in the land! Not alone, granted. As the unlucky five were decent middle-class student types, the middle-market London Times and Daily Mail rushed in, at length. Even a saddened Gordon Brown addressed the bus-crash tragedy. No novelty there, alas: these days his advisers seem to think that no topic is too small for a prime-ministerial soundbite. Doesn't the man have a bigger job to do?

If all this were an aberration on a news-thin Sunday, it wouldn't deserve comment. But it's not. By now, it's typical. The BBC has an admirable network of admirable overseas correspondents. Its World Service is still the most reliable radio source of world news, its Radio Four a reminder of the days when the Beeb took being serious seriously. But the news judgment of its domestic television bulletins often strikes me as weird: the editor of the Puddlecombe and Much Chattering Gazette, staffed by two journos and a dog, could do better.

Now fair enough, people like me aren't the main audience that the BBC has to please. The Beeb isn't The Economist. But nor is it a tabloid newspaper competing with other populist tabloids (and well they do their job). It isn't the Daily Mail, which has made a skilled and successful business out of pleasing Middle England. It isn't the Times, which has been perfectly entitled to traipse down-market hoping to do likewise.

Still, the BBC is a national institution, supported by public funds. It has a duty to deliver public-service information. That means hard news. Instead, the Beeb's editors specialise increasingly in mawkish sentimentality with its bunches of plastic-wrapped flowers, its standard clichés of public sorrow and de mortuis nil nisi bunkum. None of which, with due respect to those who have genuine and personal reasons for grief, is news. If your daughter is killed in a road accident, that for you is a tragedy. I don't mean to play it down. But it's your tragedy. It isn't one that we journalists and cameramen, still less our editors at headquarters, should rush to make headlines and a public spectacle of--young, good-looking, well-intentioned, British but in an exotic foreign country as the victims may be.

The BBC thinks it is.

(Stephen Hugh-Jones is a former writer and editor for The Economist, where he wrote the Johnson column from 1992-99. He lives now in West Sussex.)