SubScribe: Sold down the river Google+

Tuesday 5 June 2012

Sold down the river

Updated June 7

"Our output has been impressive not only in its scale, but in its ambition, quality and outstanding journalism. The audience response has been overwhelming with a peak audience of almost 12 million people tuning in for the pageant, 17 million for the concert and 7.4 million for yesterday's carriage procession. Overall across the jubilee weekend, 68.5% of the nation watched some of our Diamond Jubilee programming, a stunning figure."
Mark Thompson, BBC Director-General, in an email to staff today

It's never much fun having to work when the rest of the country is on holiday. But when you're a journalist it's part of the package. We all moan when we are rostered for what seem like too many Sundays, but there are upsides. You get days off in the week when everyone else is slaving, so the town centres are empty or you can get on with the chores in peace. If you're a middle-ranking exec you might be allowed to play with the train set with limited long-distance interference from above. If something big happens, you feel a real part of it because there are so few of you at work - but if something really big happens, you know the boss class will descend on the office and take over.
On rare occasions we know in advance that something big is going to happen, and so staffing is adjusted accordingly. I dare say that every sports editor in the country will be on duty constantly between July 27 and August 12.
This weekend was just such an occasion. If you're the Independent or the Socialist Worker you may not have felt it necessary to staff up for the jubilee to quite the same extent as the Telegraph or the Mail - it's all a question of knowing your audience. And this is where the BBC  got it so catastrophically wrong.
At The Times, for example, the deputy editor - rather than one of the team of lowlier Sunday editors - was running the show this Sunday night;  the chief night editor was on duty all over the weekend. The paper knew that the river pageant was the central event of the celebrations and that it had to be covered properly. The top team was on hand to make sure it was: the best writers, the best photographers, the best executives. The strategy paid off with a 20% lift in sales - more than 100,000 extra copies sold - a far bigger boost than was achieved by any of its rivals. The Telegraph, which went jubilee bonkers and even put Union Flag bunting on the masthead (disliked by many, but I thought it was fun)  saw sales rise by about 8%.

So what gives with the BBC? It clearly knew that the pageant was important to its viewers: it  devoted four and a half hours of unbroken coverage to it. The website described it as one of the biggest events of the year, the first time in 350 years that such a flotilla had been seen on the Thames. Everyone knows we are a maritime nation. The event, as we were told several times, had been three years in the planning. How did the Beeb manage to make such a mess of it?
First, who commissioned Kate Shiers, Claire Megahey and Zoe Timmers  - a trio whose experience appears to be dominated by Crufts, the One Show and Three Men in a Boat - as the producers?
Who approved the list of presenters and participants?  Presumably Megahey's links with the One Show explain Matt Baker and Sophie Raworth, and the Three Men in a Boat link may tell us why Griff Rhys Jones was imposed on us.
But, for goodness' sake: Tess Daly,  Anneka Rice, Sian Williams, Fearne Cotton, Sandi Toksvig, Maureen Lipman, Richard E. Grant? Did nobody look at this list and think 'Hey, blokes like boats, should we get some chaps who know what they're talking about?'
No,  rather the view appears to have been 'Oh the men won't watch, it's the girlies who like all this royal fluff, but they won't care about the boats, we need to lighten it up.'

The first big mistake was not to recognise - in spite of its own hype reinforcing the fact - that this was a big state occasion. The Beeb was scared by criticisms of David Dimbleby's commentaries for the golden jubilee a decade ago and had, in the words of former Radio 4 controller Mark Damazer made a clear decision to make the coverage "warm and inclusive".
But you can be warm and inclusive without being idiotic.
The great voices of the past, the Tom Flemings and the Max Robertsons, have been silenced by mortality, so if you accept that the BBC didn't want to wheel out a Dimbleby, who could have stepped in?  If the channel has dumbed down to such an extent that it has no presenter with more gravitas than Bruce Forsyth, Dermot O'Leary or Graham Norton, then it should have gone knocking on the door of Radio 4, where it would have found a wealth of talent to borrow: James Naughtie for a start, Sean Lay, Ed Stourton, Jennie Murray...anyone, indeed, who could recognise that a little homework would stand them in good stead. And what about Andrew Marr? Or even Jeremy Paxman or Fiona Bruce?
But no, Paul Dickenson was given the job; a man who literally didn't know one end of a boat from the other - going from talking about the gilding on the stern to the same gilding on the prow in the course of one sentence. 

The howlers have been widely listed: HRH the Queen; a hat being made by the milliner who produced Nelson's hat for Waterloo; the tonnage of HMS Belfast, the Duke of Edinburgh's age; muddling upriver and downriver; talk about going downstairs from the royal barge's first floor.
Tom Cunliffe, the only maritime expert on duty, knew a thing or two but was barely allowed to air his knowledge because it was far more important for the viewers to see Tess Daly "knighted" by a drag queen in Battersea Park or drool over some average WI cakes in a tent. And even Cunliffe was unable to translate the semaphore message being relayed from the National Theatre. Didn't these men have telephones? Weren't there any people on hand as back-up to tell them what it meant? Well the Belfast Telegraph could have done. It reported last Thursday that rooftop dancers would spell out the message "Happy diamond jubilee Queen Elizabeth We heart you."
Last Wednesday I was in the village hall and a local man came in to photocopy some downloads from the pageant's official website. He took home pages and pages of details of all the boats taking part so that he could follow their progress closely. The information was - and still is - there, freely available to everyone. Did nobody at the BBC think to read it?
If they thought waiting for a succession of ordinary boats to come through was too boring, could they not have focused one by one on those in the Avenue of Sail? Sir Francis Chichester's Gypsy Moth IV, the Dixie Queen paddle steamer, the Endeavour cockle boat that took part in the Dunkirk evacuation? 
Ah, sorry. They did pick up on one: HMS Belfast. Fearne Cotton was sent there to talk to a couple of war veterans. Did she ask them for their memories? Did she treat them with the respect one expects at their great age? Did she heck. She addressed them by the first names, Jim and John. Not difficult names, but she still managed to call John 'Jim' and then feed them the (inaccurate)  words she wanted to hear, leaving them with little  to say but 'yes'.

OK, so the BBC was determined to get across the party atmosphere (it could hardly be blamed for the rain), so it was legitimate to have some folk out with the crowds. But any fool could see that what was required was a mix. Newspapers have grasped this all along. There have been fun pictures, jolly colour copy, a bit of history, and some serious commentary along with the razzmatazz. How could nobody at the Beeb realise that the same applied here, after all there were 270 minutes to fill, there was plenty of time to blend the serious with the fluffy bits.

What was vital was that viewers should have been told the history and the personal stories behind as many of the boats as possible. With all the participants listed on the website, researchers should have gone out and spoken to the owners about their craft in advance.The interviews could have been spliced into the live coverage. There should have been a helicopter crew showing shots of the entire flotilla, instead of restricting us to the rowing boats and the royal barge. We needed at least to be told the story of the little boats' role at Dunkirk; we didn't need people cooking or cracking jokes or swooning over the handle that lifts Tower Bridge.
And how about reacting to newsworthy events as they happen? When the London Philharmonic Orchestra's boat arrived at Tower Bridge we saw 12 young people out on deck, soaking wet, singing their hearts out. Why weren't we told who they were? Or even the name of the choir? (They were members of the Royal School of Music Chamber Choir.)
There was so much wrong with the coverage that it's cruel to continue. So let's move on.

The jubilee concert outside Buckingham Palace had a line-up that looked as naff and as cheesy as you could get. There was a shadow over the event because of the Duke of Edinburgh's absence. But apart from  Paul McCartney's odd choice of songs and Elton John's faltering voice, all went swimmingly -  particularly Stevie Wonder's reworking of his lyrics and the  light show on the Palace facade that accompanied Madness's Our House.
The only trouble was that, as is often the case with such events, the show overran a bit. The Beeb should be used to that by now - so many football finals run to extra time and penalties.  Generally  the rest of the schedule is just pushed back a bit. But not last night. Oh no. The concert ended with a four-minute firework display. Just as it reached its climax, Huw Edwards started to sign off...and then the fireworks were hidden under the scrolling credits. They couldn't wait just one minute - one minute - to let the viewers see the display come to its natural conclusion. Can you imagine them cutting off the final penalty in one of those cup finals? Of course not.
And with time so tight, you'd expect to go straight into the next programme which was, as the continuity announcer told us, five minutes late. No. The fireworks were cut off to make way for a pair of trailers for the Euros and the rest of the jubilee coverage. 
The next day, the channel broadcast the concert again. Presumably there would be people in an editing suite somewhere who could put right the faux pas of the previous night? There must surely have been some straight film of the display and some technical means of showing it all? But no, what was shown was exactly the same as the night before - put the tape in the machine and bugger off home - complete with the intrusive final credits.

This is what rankles about the BBC's attitude. It was bad enough that it got things wrong on the pageant, but there was a loud enough reaction for it to make sure that coverage of the concert was pitch perfect. Then when it made another mistake, which was also swiftly and widely denounced, it took no action to rectify it for the second showing of the concert the next day. This again smacks of having the B or C team on duty because it was a holiday weekend instead of realising that this wasn't just any other quiet bank holiday. Where were the people who are supposed to be in charge?  Just as an editor has to carry the can when his paper gets it wrong, so the controller should be called to account for this. Where was Danny Cohen all weekend? 

And then when the serious inquests began, how did the BBC respond? Did it put up someone accountable to answer the criticisms on the Today programme or the Media Show? No. It was left to Mark Damazer, who does not even work for the corporation any more, to face Evan Davis yesterday morning. He came up with the "warm and inclusive" line and then declared: "The BBC tried too hard."
Tried too hard? Excuse me. This isn't an 11-year-old who has been told to do her best in a school test; this is our national publicly-financed world-renowned broadcasting giant. Tried too hard?  The whole crux of the problem was that the people on screen and behind the mikes didn't try at all. They did no homework, they didn't have a clue what they were talking about and thought it was all too dull for anybody to care.

The decision to take a lighter approach - as Alan Yentob put it to the Media Show 'to reflect popular participation' - was apparently a direct result of the complaints about Dimbleby ten years ago. Then there were 700, this time there were nearly 2,500. Those who had a pop at Dimbleby said he talked too much and was disrespectful at times. That doesn't tell me that the whole nation wanted the Beeb to dumb down; the "disrespectful" suggests the reverse. 
And if the dismay of 700 people is enough to bring a change of tack - however misguided - shouldn't there be some acknowledgement that when three times as many ring or write to have a moan, they may have a point? No one has said "We got it wrong" or even "We could have done better."
Instead the  corporation has rushed out audience figures showing that 12 million tuned in for the pageant, as though that proves everyone loved it. But ITV wasn't offering live coverage, so the figures aren't that meaningful.
Mark Thompson retires soon as director-general. Two of the internal candidates to replace him were involved in planning the jubilee coverage. Let's hope they, and their rivals, have learnt from this.

Thank you for sticking with it to the end. Please do share your thoughts below. And please take a look at the other posts. They are all media related.

Hello and goodbye to Wapping a personal diary of life inside the fortress in the days before the strike that changed newspapers forever

Out of print a love letter to newspapers in this digital age. Why they don't have to die if we have the will to let them live and thrive

Why local newspapers matter Why we should care about the revolution in the regional press

Missing: an opportunity How the hunt for Madeleine McCann could be turned into a force for good instead of just a festival of mawkish sentimentality

Riding for a fall Does buying a ticket for a jolly day out at the races mean you are fair game for the snobs who sneer and snipe?

Just a pretty face Illustrating the business pages isn't the easiest job in the world, but spare us the celebs who aren't even mentioned in the story

Food for thought a case study in why we should take health advice with a pinch of salt (and a glass of red wine and a helping of roast beef) 

The world's gone mad Don Draper returns and  the drooling thirtysomethings go into overdrive But does anybody watch the show? (But there is more Whipple in this post!)


  1. "Even a sour old republican cynic like me winced when there was a reference, I think on the Beeb, to 'Her Royal Highness the Queen'. Sky was also dire once the Sun King Eamonn Holmes hove into view, telling us how great he was to be sitting in the cold and wet. What an arse."

  2. I think it is a shame that the BBC made such a hash of the coverage when so much effort had been made by others. Most people I have spoken to thought Sky's coverage was a lot better when you would have thought that this kind of event was meat and drink to the BBC. Maybe they had stretched resources due to all the other events they were covering, or may be I'm trying to find them an excuse for bad planning!

  3. I don´t often bother with TV news, but since it dashed straight on after the show, I watched with amazement - a couple of fairly random clips from what we had just watched and then on to the burnt out wreck of an aircraft in Nigeria, the high death toll mentioned all done with the annoying "I want you to take this News programme extremely seriously" ´music´overriding the lot. Then without pause, straight on to the trailers for Euro12 ... I hate it. jb

  4. Did anyone else notice Rob Brydon's dubious "joke" during the concert, about the iPod Barack Obama gave Her Maj, preloaded with music from Broadway musicals: "A bit presumptuous of the president - I know she's a queen, but that doesn't automatically mean she likes songs from the shows ..." Time and place, Rob, time and place.

  5. I did wonder why Andrew Marr hadn't made an appearance - you would have thought Andrew and Fiona Bruce would have been perfect choices given their recent programmes for the BBC!

    On a separate note - whoever made the decision to leave the stage up for Tuesday - I can confirm that there were a rather large number of people on the Mall rather disgruntled to find the balcony view completely blocked by the stage roof!!!


    1. i thought the same about the stage...just assumed it was impossible logistically. don't know how long it took to put up/dismantle. thanks for kind words

    2. Gary Barlow was on the BBC talking about it as the queen had asked about it being taken down. The BBC reported that teams would be working immediately after the concert ended to dismantle it?! Maybe that was something else they got wrong!!

  6. Totally agree. I love Tom Cunliffe and to be honest only tuned in to hear about the actual boats and was so disapointed with all the popular dross. Thought it was going to be slick like Remembrance Day.

    The main criticism of Cunliffe is that he couldnt read the semaphor message, but that was unfair. He should have been given a more featured role on the day to talk about the many many maritime subjects he does know about - ie the boats that built Britain etc.

  7. There was a solution to avoiding this witless old tosh. The OFF button... Frankie Boyle had it about right "Crocodile Rock to a family of lizards!"