News from Abroad

by Kieran Healy on April 14, 2004

I’m getting my first sustained dose of UK-based broadcast news for a while, and it’s interesting to watch the coverage of recent events in Fallujah and Bush’s press conference last night. Round-the-clock coverage of David Beckham notwithstanding, the higher quality of the news—in everything from the evident literacy of the reporters to the standard of graphic design—is obvious. A chunk of warbloggers in the U.S. and elsewhere routinely bellyache about the bias of the BBC, so let’s leave Auntie aside. Sky News is owned by Rupert Murdoch but doesn’t much resemble Fox, its American counterpart. Reports from Iraq have sounded pretty cynical: propaganda footage of a firefight was presented with the comment “This is what a ceasefire looks like in Fallujah,” and the Pentagon’s statement that the city “was not yet under control to our satisfaction” was called, I think, a “typical piece of understatement.” Meanwhile, though Sky’s report on Bush’s press conference reduced the President’s performance to soundbites, the reporter said something like “By his standards this was a relatively assured performance,” and we got a good chunk of the floundering response to the question, “What was your biggest mistake after 9/11?” On the other hand, some suggest that Murdoch himself isn’t too happy with this sort of attitude.

{ 8 comments }

1

push 04.14.04 at 8:38 am

a recent survey of UK MPs showed they thought Sky and ITV (other main news provider) to be more impartial than BBC. Sky knows it is going to attract criticisms of partiality so it generally plays the clever game of not attempting to be. Presenters like Adam Boulton help. However, past Sky coverage of issues related to Murdoch’s business interests tends to be highly partial, in contrast to the BBC’s unflinching coverage of its own misfortunes post the Hutton Report.

2

Matthew 04.14.04 at 10:02 am

Interestingly a survey of the British viewing public after the war found that many more saw the BBC’s coverage as pro-coalition than they did Sky’s, and similarly more thought Sky was pro-Iraq (!) than the BBC. So Sky clearly is doing something right.

It’s main flaw, which perhaps isn’t really a flaw, is it’s very keen to be first with the news, and sometimes gets it completely wrong.

3

james 04.14.04 at 11:23 am

Sky suffers from many of the pitfalls of all 24 hour news, including a “breaking news” fetish and a frequent inability to step back and analyse the big picture in a less than frenzied manner, but on the whole it’s actually…good. Which is pretty shocking considering Fox, its “sister network”.

Those quotes from Iraq sound very much like David Chater, who was really excellent during the war itself.

4

ogged 04.14.04 at 2:55 pm

Anyone who’s spent time in both places care to make some rash generalizations about the audience for TV news in the UK vs. the audience in the States?

5

Ginger Yellow 04.14.04 at 4:09 pm

The main difference between TV news in the UK and in the US is that, unlike British newspapers, (terrestrial) TV news sources have a duty to be impartial. You have the exact opposite situation of the de facto one in the States, where the news pages of the papers are supposed to be objective while nobody really thinks the TV news is. In Britain the papers are fiercely partisan, even in the news pages, while the TV news programmes are, often to the point of tedium and obfuscation, overtly neutral/balanced. Curiously there are a couple of exceptions. One is Channel 4 news, which is about as explicitly lefty and liberal as you could possibly get in the UK regulatory environment and whose anchor is well known as a liberal. The other is satellite news (Sky, ITN News Channel) which isn’t regulated, but is still pretty impartial. In ITN’s case this is because of market expectations (they flog their news to other broadcasters and wouldn’t want to prejudice those sales). In Sky’s case it’s a combination of market expectations and a political device. Murdoch gets a lot of criticism in the UK for the sleaziness and partisanship of his papers, and for his near monopoly control of the media. Consequently Sky News is the most effective tool he has to persuade the government to let him buy more media outlets, since it is probably the best 24 hour news channel available in the country (we can get all the US ones on satellite, plus things like Al Jazeera).

As far as the audience goes, that’s again diametrically opposite to the US. In Britain most people read a (national) newspaper in the morning, where they get a good deal of news. If they read a broadsheet (Guardian, Independent, Times, Telegraph) it will be seriously presented and include a lot of political and foreign affairs coverage. Most however read the tabloids (some of the split comes down to class, some to taste and some to other factors), then most of the “news” will be celebrity gossip – see Beckham – and other trivia, although the big issues and events will be covered, sometimes well. The consequence of all this is that TV news is expected to be serious and high-brow to counter the tabloid trash in the morning (TV morning news is also pretty trashy). A broad section of the population watches the more serious TV news, regardless of whether they read tabloids or broadsheets or neither. ITV (our most populist terrestrial channel) launched a lightweight news show with its star presenter to go alongside its main programme about two years ago and it has done terribly.

6

Claire 04.14.04 at 6:15 pm

What’s tv news like in Canada compared to the US in it’s coverage of Iraq?

7

Keith M Ellis 04.14.04 at 6:34 pm

I sometimes worry that I might misunderstand American popular opinion since, for the most part (excluding 9/11), I haven’t watched a TV newscast in a decade.

I don’t watch TV, period. I do watch some television series by way of downloading them from the net; but when I’ve visited other people’s homes and been exposed to commercial television in all its hideousness, I have to admit that it’s really weirded me out.

The fact that most Americans get all their news from television badly frightens me. The fact that that relatively informed group is the minority, frightens me worse. Oh, well.

8

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