Broken news

As one commentator put it: “This is what happens when UK media culture loses perspective”
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By Jonathan Spencer
Crisis Response Manager, Navigate Response

There is nothing like summer to throw up a tangle of news stories. And it felt nothing like summer, as extreme weather stories eclipsed myriad migrant crossings, protestors played to the gallery, and a NATO conference – focused on a European war – got little mention as a BBC news anchor was dragged through the tabloid press over allegations of money paid for explicit photos.

I find myself cathartically seeking to make sense of news, if not the weather. Perhaps it’s being born in the 60s – that turbulent decade’s end – just as North Vietnam’s Tet Offensive (against the US-backed South) was ready to rumble …or the decade I later spent in live television news.

Veteran war correspondents once weighed the frustration of their story not going live with the angst of it being dropped altogether when content was deemed unsuitable for interrupting a summer gala performance.

‘The revolution will not be televised…’ – Gil Scott-Heron’s spoken word, borrowed with respect. His point, set amongst the civil rights movement of that era, was the immediacy of an event being instantaneous, or unannounced. The revolution will be live, not right back after the break …but here and now, clear and prescient. That’s not to say the event was any less unpalatable for TV controllers.

Perhaps our mood is hindered by stretch-pains as the era changes, post the passing of the Queen. King gets on with reigning, not ruling. Smile and wave… Yet, whilst continuity embraces change to survive, monarchy strides the hurdle of succession – there is residual uncertainty that comes with successive crisis-weary governments, chronic industrial disputes and direct action.

We are familiar with protest slogans daubed on the hulls of vessels. Climate protestors never enamour their campaign by mistaking a bulker for a tanker.

Just Stop Oil activists escalate a known urgency, by exploiting the immediacy of surprise irritation. They are the uninvited guest – throwing orange confetti at a society wedding, disrupting a promenade concert, or exploding powder paint across a Crucible snooker table. Dramatic images are front page news; snooker players on TV discuss climate change. An objective is achieved despite haemorrhaging public support. Outrage raises the bar; images capture our attention.

Such groups often morph into something else after a season or two …oh, but what a season.

It’s like this century just won’t settle down: 9/11 attacks, war and counter-terrorism, financial crash, mass migration, pandemic, Russia’s pointless war impacting a cost-of-living crisis and energy protectionism. And yet there is no sign of it settling down as we fast-forward with net-zero: electric cars, modular new nuclear and massive carbon capture infrastructure to offset transitional oil and gas. One can feel unsettled, unnerved…

Today, we point phone cameras in all directions and still not get half the story. Then there’s CCTV and police bodycams, before we even get to sharing: TikTok, Instagram …a newspaper picture editor.

Context and verification matter in such an immediate world. It concerned the BBC enough to brand them into its channel output strands as BBC News Channel merged with BBC World. That was less than seamless. But it was to be a week in July that brought the corporation close to imploding following The Sun newspaper splash: allegations claimed an unnamed presenter to have paid a young man for photos and indirectly fund his drug habit.

Criticism soon centred on the BBC’s complaint procedure, something clearly having gone array: the call from the boy’s parents not escalated to senior management; a high-profile name not triggering action. The BBC said they were investigating as days of headlines and new claims followed.

The presenter’s name was held back as the BBC’s director general grappled with the burden of public interest and duty of care. Public interest because the presenter was the highest paid news anchor, because the BBC is publicly funded – accountable to both public and parliament under Royal Charter …because BBC News was leading this story intrigue and covering little else.

Other high-profile figures were quick to remove themselves from speculation, as social media chatter went berserk. And BBC News – the entire building aware of their colleague under growing pressure – felt its own professional burden as public broadcaster needing to cover the story. It led for five days: BBC News Online’s finest hour – or not – as its live page shared non-stop updates and comments, with new claims surfacing inside the corporation. Editorially I would say it coped; internal pressure going to the wire. But this was story indulgence in the extreme, and just where was this headed…?

As one commentator put it: “This is what happens when UK media culture loses perspective.”

Enough is enough. On the sixth day, in a brilliant and courageous move just before the evening six o’clock news, the presenter’s wife released a statement (almost simultaneously, a line from the police: not investigating claims). Her husband, Huw Edwards, was …in hospital having suffered a serious mental health episode …Sorry for the pressure on colleagues, but …Huw will respond to the story when he is well enough. Duty of care. Direct action, when something had clearly gone wrong.

BBC national and World networks had to follow up – seriously, for four hours, with nothing else? But the story then disappeared from the website and bulletins. The Sun would splash no more claims. That was the seventh day.

Huw anchors major UK events (coronation, remembrance, elections) as well as news. Make no mistake, this news had gravity – dropping into editor’s inboxes, news wires …a flash ticker on my TV.

I worked with Huw on the BBC’s Six and Ten O’clock News. I know him as the ultimate professional, among the very best.

Sometimes them’s the breaks… moments to air a news headline is arrested. Sometimes we just stop.

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