Beware the armchair expert

In a single bound, the story leapt from “stowaways” to “terrorists”, from “asylum seekers” to “hijackers”
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By Mike Elsom

One of the challenges with rolling TV news is how to keep the content varied and fresh. For developing or long-running stories, the production team will trawl networks and contacts for any talking head that can be persuaded to step in front of the camera and give their opinion. While this gives much needed colour to a news item, it carries the danger of taking a story in a different direction or starting a rumour that is hard to control.

In October, a Greek owned tanker was approaching a UK port when the master radioed to the authorities that a group of stowaways had been discovered onboard and were becoming violent. The master was told to stand off until assistance could be provided. He held the vessel a mile or two offshore for a number of hours until the UK military could board the ship, round-up the stowaways and send the ship into port.

During the waiting period, the vessel was clearly visible from the UK coastline and, as someone had tipped off the local media, a news story began to emerge. A local online outlet broke the story which was later picked up by local radio and then national online and broadcast media. Inevitably, since the ship was visible, the story was covered by the rolling news channels. And, as is usual, a number of “experts” were called to give their perspectives on the unfolding drama.

Anyone with even the meanest understanding of maritime affairs will have seen this story for what it was. A small group of frightened young men seeking a better life by illegally boarding a ship in west Africa bound for the UK.

But not according to the on-screen “experts”.

In a single bound, the story leapt from “stowaways” to “terrorists”, from “asylum seekers” to “hijackers”. There was talk of the vessel being in the hands of “pirates”; the very real potential of a deliberate environmental disaster; and even the infiltration of a nearby military dockyard. Unfounded sensationalism ignited a tame local story and catapulted it across the global news outlets. It even reached the US.

Astoundingly, one “expert” accused Greek ships sailing under a “flag of convenience” of routinely employing poorly trained seafarers. An unhelpful and irresponsible swipe at the shipping industry.

Depending on the situation, those directly involved should front-up to the cameras to help fill the media void that rolling news creates. Speaking directly to the media is not always the right thing to do. But when it is, it gives the opportunity for real perspectives to be presented and lessens the chances of armchair experts perverting a story and driving it up the news agenda.

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