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How much do journalism students know about who runs the BBC?

Deputy Head of Broadcasting at City University's famous journalism school Lis Howell interrogates her postgraduate students about the DG race, and suggests that if the brightest talent in the country know and care as little as they do about it, then there's something wrong with the process

Lis Howell
19 June 2012

I thought it would be interesting to try and find out how interested and knowledgeable postgraduate journalism students (average age 26) are about the appointment of the new Director General of the BBC.

I‘m the Director of Broadcasting at City University London. I have eighty students on two MA courses: TV and Broadcasting. To qualify for these courses every student needs a 2:1 from a British university or equivalent, they must have some work experience in the broadcasting industry, and they have to go through a selection process which includes a fairly stiff news and current affairs test. Once they are accepted on the course, every week they take a further news and current affairs test. By term three they have had six hours of lectures on compliance and broadcasting regulation from a leading professor, and taken an exam which includes a short unseen question about regulation.

So I think it's fair to assume they are more interested in the governance of the BBC than most of their peer group.

I sent five questions to each of the 80 students. The questions were:

  1. Do you know who the front runners are for Director General of the BBC?
  2. Can you distinguish what these people stand for?
  3. Can you distinguish their career profiles?
  4. Do you care who becomes Director General of the BBC?
  5. Could you confidently answer an exam question on the process of appointing a Director General (don’t worry you won’t have to!)

This is a bad time for postgrad students as they are completing their final assignments but I was still surprised to receive only ten replies. It only took a few minutes to answer my questions so I felt the low response was an indication of the lack of interest.  I also suspect many didn’t reply because they didn’t know the answer to question one – “do you know who the front runners are?” and were embarrassed. 

Of the ten who responded, two didn’t know any candidates. One respondent only knew one frontrunner – Helen Boaden. Students were not asked to volunteer names, but two people mentioned Helen Boaden, and she was the only frontrunner whose name cropped up.  

No students could distinguish what the candidates “stood for”.

Five of the eight who knew the candidates said they could distinguish their career profiles (though one gave details which were wrong!)

Eight out of the ten respondents said they cared who became DG of the BBC. One said they would only care if they worked for the BBC and one said they’d be interested when it was announced, but they didn’t care enough to research it in advance.

Only one respondent thought they could answer an exam question on the process of selecting a DG but sadly they were wrong! That means nine out of ten had no real interest in how the DG is chosen and ten out of ten were ignorant of the process. 

These are bright kids who will be making programmes somewhere near you in the near future. They appear to feel distanced from the leadership of the BBC. It is tempting to condemn them as dumb or even as badly taught but these are people who can (to quote their last exam), explain the differences between the way impartiality and accuracy is regulated on the BBC and how it is regulated on ITV, Channel Four, Channel Five and Sky? Not many people can do that! They can also write terrifyingly good blogs, create great websites and make films which are worthy of broadcasting. In the past two of our student films have been taken up by BBC Newsnight.

So why so little knowledge of, or interest in, the BBC leadership? Perhaps because the information isn’t out there to excite them. Choosing the DG is an arcane, elitist, exclusive process which goes over the heads of most people. Maybe that’s deliberate. Maybe a DG is wanted who is cool, objective, not driven by the urge to dole out bread and circuses. But what is wrong with at least letting us know more about the frontrunners – even giving them a televised debate? Revealing people’s policy leanings and discussing their experience doesn’t turn them into Simon Cowell or have them phoning Max Clifford. And if these students aren’t interested enough to find out about these people, or stimulated enough to try, then what chance for the rest of the population? Our Beeb? Dream on.

Interestingly the only response which showed much involvement was from a student who was rooting for a female DG. It seems that interest can be roused when the post is linked to other causes, but not because of the post itself.

Of course I’m not saying that choosing the DG should be a version of Britain’s Got Talent, but the BBC should be engaging more people, if not in the search, then in the process. If the DG is to be presented to the nation as some sort of cultural arbiter with a finger on the pulse of everything from the Jubilee Pageant to the Paralympics, surely journalism students at least should be vaguely excited by who it is, and more importantly, who makes the decision.

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