The BBC has lost touch: here's how it could re-connect

A filmmaker advises BBC news staff on how to better engage with the harsh realities of life for many in Britain.

Sarah O'Connell
24 May 2016

In 2012 I produced a film for BBC Newsnight, which was an investigation into Bed and Breakfast accommodation and the housing of young families, in cramped and dingy rooms, who were placed there for well over the legal limit of six weeks. The film was difficult to make. It involved spending weeks creeping in and out of bed and breakfast properties in South London, pretending I wasn't really a journalist, but was instead visiting friends who lived there. I received bed bug bites from sitting on infested beds for too long, saw raw sewage seeping back into bathrooms from faulty systems and listened to mothers talk to me, whilst they sobbed and washed sheets in tiny sinks or fed their children from cramped kitchenettes. Nobody wants to talk to a journalist when this kind of thing is happening to them. Who would? And out of the fifteen or so families I spoke to for the film, only two would agree to come on camera. So it took time to find the contacts, and get the access. And most of that time I spent in really grotty conditions with people who were extremely distressed by their circumstances. 

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Screenshot from BBC Newsnight film on homeless families living in B&Bs. Credit: BBC Newsnight

On the night the film was transmitted, I watched from the gallery, as is the norm, and as the film was ending, one of the programme's staff producers came over and asked me 'where did you come across this story?' so I told him that I'd been visiting a young girl who was living in the hotel, and had seen her living conditions first hand. So I had begun to ask questions. His response was 'that's so unusual - to go into a story from the bottom up', and that statement sent a small chill up my back. Because in so many ways this epitomises the problem with BBC journalism. It's become 'unusual' for them to go into a story from the 'bottom up'. I replied to my colleague saying 'well what other way is there to get a story? I don't think the DCLG are going to send me a press release telling me about it?' I didn't mean to rebuke him. But really, how else to find out these things, unless we go in at the 'bottom'? 

The truth is, not many national BBC news journalists see enough of life at the 'bottom' of society to report on it properly or accurately. If most of my colleagues at the BBC didn't start life with a silver spoon in their mouths, by the time they've served ten years at the BBC (and the longevity and security of a BBC news staff job is recognised industry wide), they've pretty much gained honorary status of the establishment class. And it's quite a comfortable class to be a part of. But quite possibly, in fact almost definitely, it's not the best place to find and recruit your journalists.

Another, perhaps more telling example of this kind of 'top down' approach, took place for me in 2000 when I joined the BBC in its Millbank political newsroom as a planning researcher. My previous job had been as a political researcher in the House of Commons, and I had watched with interest, and no small amount of horror, at the way Parliament operated in general, and more specifically, at the way that MPs expenses were claimed and processed. Within three months of my arrival at the BBC's political newsroom I had pitched a story on MP's expenses to the news desk. I pointed out that I knew of MPs who were essentially refurbishing their homes by using the 'Additional Home Allowance' and also that all shades of MPs were entertaining their friends and families at posh Westminster restaurants, eating lunches that cost over £150 sometimes, and then billing the taxpayer, via their expenses. I was told, 'this isn't a story, MPs have to eat'. But it was a story. It was one of the biggest political stories of the decade. And the BBC missed it, because, to most of their journalists at that time, the idea of having lunch for £150 on expenses, well, it just wasn't a story, was it? Not when it was exactly the kind of thing BBC news executives might be doing as well. 


BBC 2's 'Britain's Hardest Grafter' was unfavourably compared to Channel 4's Benefits Street. Credit: Benefits Street, Channel 4

But when you walk into a BBC newsroom you can see and hear the privilege. There are only a few genuinely working class voices. There are hardly any black faces at all. Earlier this year, I produced a film for BBC News with a young woman, Lucy Martindale, who I had known for some time. Lucy is black. She grew up around gangs and had PTSD as result of all the trauma she had witnessed and this was the subject of our film. And as we walked into BBC news for the first time, I warned her 'people will probably really look at you in the newsroom, but ignore it'. They did look. And she did ignore it. But when we came out again, she said to me 'But Sarah, where are all the black journalists? We're in London. There's loads of black people here'. And it's a good question. Where are all the black people in BBC news? Well, I can answer that. Mostly they are opening the doors for all the white people, and cleaning out their bins. Give or take a few notable exceptions.

I'm not stupid though. I know that there are loads of BBC journalists that care a great deal about fair representation in their work place and serving the public interest in their output. Some of them are my friends and I have huge respect and liking for them, both personally and professionally. But it's not good enough. The BBC has over two thousand journalists. And a significant chunk of them rarely leave the office – or if they do, it is to rush out, make a film, run back to the edit suite and cut it for broadcast. Most of the 'people finding' is done over a phone.

I realise that this is not unusual in any of the nation's national newsrooms, broadcast and otherwise. I've worked for other news organisations and seen little difference in their approach. But the BBC has a special purpose – its raison d'être is to serve the public interest, not to chase news agendas. But as local newspapers have diminished in number and output, BBC national news has neglected to step up to fill this vacuum. And it could do. It has the resources. And the staff. And it has a duty to do so.

And, of course, news demands this kind of journalism – this kind of hurried film-making and story telling. But news also demands context and understanding, explanations and examples. And these can only come with time and effort put in – if you are telling the stories of the poorer members of society – or the dispossessed. Those people that can't access lawyers, don't attend community meetings and centres regularly, and rarely come into touch with any 'professional' people, unless they are social services or the police. And there are an awful lot of people out there like this (let's face it, class wise, BBC journalists sit at the top of the pyramid). And there is a lot of really bad, and unreported, stuff happening to them. But in order for journalists to locate them and get them to speak to us, we must take our time. Show them they can trust us. Listen – really listen – to their stories. And, of course, with time, the stories become more involved. We learn a lot more. People speak more freely and tell us things that only a week before they would never have said to us. And then we can get to the truth. 

There are so many things the BBC could do, really quite easily, to rectify all this. They have financial resources and the unquestionable resources of a highly educated, willing, dedicated work force. But it's not about money. It's about the attitude at the top. About the senior executives really caring about this issue. So if I was running BBC news, then what would I do? 


Will, the 'thick-but-posh' intern from the BBC's satire on itself, W1A. Credit: W1A, BBC

Take the time

Well, for starters I would require all BBC journalists to go out into local 'grassroots' communities for extended periods of time - weeks, not hours - and not to make films or file stories, but to listen and talk to people. I would tell them 'go and make friends with people in local law centres and community groups and sit there for a week watching who comes in and out and listen to their stories'. Yes, it's uncomfortable. It's not like doing an interview with an MP in a nice cosy office. You will be out of your familiar zone - people will speak badly to you - some might even try to intimidate you. Even the lawyers and professionals will distrust you – most people that work at 'grassroots' do distrust us. (I have lost count of the times I have been told 'sorry, we don't deal with journalists, they lie about us'.) But we should persevere. Keep trying and keep showing that our interest in their lives is genuine. Prove we're not voyeurs. Show them what a journalist really does – and how much we can matter. The reverse side of this coin is to invite people into the BBC. Last year I worked training journalists in community radio in South Sudan. Every station was open to the public, and local people would come in and speak directly to a reporter or producer. This worked brilliantly because it was easy and you didn't need to 'know' anyone before you popped in. The BBC should think about this. Why not have 'drop in shop' days? Where journalists are available to speak first hand and in person to people who have an issue or a story. We should be accessible. Not living in ivory towers. And we should be the ones who are making ourselves accessible. We should be reaching out – not the other way around.

An investigations unit 

And, quite obviously to me, and as Meirion Jones has argued – the BBC needs an investigations unit. How is it even possible that it doesn't already exist? Take the IPCC for example: a hugely powerful organisation, charged with holding the police accountable. But there has been no really thorough investigation done of them. Instead, the BBC does little packages and pieces, and a Panorama some time ago. But to really, truly investigate what goes on at the IPCC, well, it could take a couple of years and ten journalists. But the BBC has these resources. Nobody else does. But they do. Why not use them? Why not have a long-term strategy to look at organisations like the police, the IPCC, the coroners, housing, legal aid, asylum, immigration? It will take a long time to get people to speak out because they will likely be vulnerable and distressed. But it will be worth it in the end. 

Who gets to be staff?

There are so many other things to do, too many to list here, but finally, the BBC must change its recruitment process. It must start employing working class kids, black and white, and training them up as journalists. The days of kids from the estates coming up through the local newspapers are long gone. Now, the route in is Oxford (or some other swanky university) and then to ask your mum's friend who works there if there is any chance of a job. Over a third of BBC executives are ex-Oxford or Cambridge. And so working class voices – black and white – are not flourishing in the BBC. They are almost silent. And the stories that the corporation covers reflect the make-up, attitudes and demographics of its staff. This needs to stop, before this demographic is lost to the BBC forever, not just in staff, but in viewers. And if the BBC cannot find a way to recruit the non-privileged through its traditional channels, then it must look at other options. As Rhian Jones has pointed out, whether effective enough or not, there are plenty of schemes and quotas for black and ethnic minority groups, while the issue of class is not being addressed. The BBC must consider positive discrimination taking class into account, if it's news output is to truly reflect ordinary people's concerns and issues. 

The BBC still holds the potential to improve the face of UK journalism, because where they lead, others still follow. They still have the time and the resources to do this. And they must ensure they do. Even when taking all the cuts into account, BBC news is a vast operation, with more journalists and bureaus than any other news org. But the upcoming Charter review should take into account the fact that the BBC is losing touch with its public, and there should be remedies included – real solutions, not lip service – to change this. Because they might not realise it now, but it's what will make BBC news, and the BBC overall, able to survive and flourish – to truly represent the public interest – and to gain back so much of the respect that it has lost in recent years.

Sarah O'Connell's first play, Concrete Jungle, which looks at the behaviour of TV news journalists when interviewing and filming vulnerable people, premieres at the Whitefield Garrick, Manchester on 25th July, and is part of the Greater Manchester Fringe event. 

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