Party politics aside, the BBC needs to make its systems and processes much more transparent when it comes to booking interviewees and on how it decides which stories to cover
Some of you may have seen the petition (see here) currently doing the rounds set up by Green Party activist Portia Cocks that got 10,000 signatures in its first 24 hours. Some of you on the green side of politics may have complained directly to the BBC online. (If you haven’t but want to, see here). For the sake of my own transparency, I voted for The Greens at the European elections. (See my explanation here). Rather than going through an argument for the BBC covering the Green Party more, I want to explore the wider issue about transparency and accountability in the broadcast media (and the BBC in particular) more generally.
“So…how do you get on telly?”
To summarise as far as public policy is concerned:
- Find and get to know the producers and researchers for your target programmes
- Find out what their planning schedules are – at what point during the day are they scouting around for material for programmes? (The same goes for print media – when do they have their conferences when they decide what goes into the paper?)
- Use social media – blogging and tweeting – to raise your profile and demonstrate your expertise
- Comment regularly on newsworthy items that are within your field of expertise
- Go to events where journalists are likely to be – and ask questions in the Q&A sessions where you get to state who you are and where you are from
There are thousands of consultants out there that advise people of exactly this. I’ve been to a number of workshops where some of the ‘trade secrets’ have been shared. The same is true for public policy. If you get into the right circles and make a name for yourself, there’s a lot of money to be made. You only have to look at the amount of money big businesses spend on lobbyists in Westminster and Brussels. They follow the money and the power.
Want to know how representatives of right-wing campaign groups get onto the media so much? They know how the media work (a number have worked inside such organisations) and they are on first-name terms with the researchers and producers. They are very good at seeking out junior researchers in media organisations on the first rung of the ladder and befriending them. Ditto with lobbyists and junior civil servants. They are not in it for the short term, but the long term.
This differs from a number of left-wing campaigns who, in my experience either ignore the mainstream media altogether because they don’t like/distrust it, or go in guns blazing/very aggressively without having done any of the groundwork or relationship-building that is so essential when trying to get into the workings of large organisations.
How did Puffles get a media profile in this election?
I covered in my last blogpost how Puffles ended up with a media profile at the local elections that was disproportionate to the amount of votes we got. Matt Hodgkinson of Cambridge Green Party should have received far more media coverage than he did given the number of votes he got – 688. (Puffles got 89 – though on a ‘contact the other parties first & only vote for Puffles if you’re unimpressed by them’ platform).
In all the interviews that I did, my reputation was known to the people interviewing me – those on Twitter had come across Puffles before. Therefore we did not have to go through a stage of trying to suss each other out. Many of the local journalists that follow Puffles have been doing so for at least a couple of years. In that regard I’ve done the work on developing the ‘soft relationships’ – even though I’ve never really thought about it that way. I’ve simply seen it as tweeting through Puffles and blogging about things I’m passionate about – and engaging in interesting conversation with people who have knowledge in areas I’m less familiar with. It was only close to the deadline of nominations that I took the decision to stand for election. It’s not as if this was some big 4 year plan.
Making the mainstream media more transparent
Let’s take BBC Question Time (see here). My first question is: How do you become a panellist? In the audience applications, their researchers phone you up to ask you about your political disposition which allows them to select a politically-balanced audience. Twitter is merciless about what you wear – as I found to my cost! The same goes for the BBC Radio 4 flagship programme Today. How do they decide who is going to be interviewed on the show? The website The Women’s Room was launched in response to an excruciating interview on Radio 4 where a panel of men were discussing breast-feeding. Badly.
Transparency is what the BBC in particular – but other broadcasters too – need to get a grip of. They need to publish and publicise how people get onto their shows, and what the criteria are. More experts who have frontline experience and/or who have academic expertise, and fewer ‘broadcasters and columnists’ please. That’s not code for ‘more left-wing intellectuals and fewer Tories please!’ either.
This is another thing that is lacking: Explanations from the individual executives and producers who are the decision-makers. Hence why I slammed four BBC senior executives over the corporation’s failure to broadcast the European hustings of the lead candidates – despite the debate being in English! Without an explanation, the lack of transparency and accountability makes fertile ground for conspiracy theories. Eg. the debate not being broadcast because it would be politically awkward for the big three parties because they had chosen not to campaign publicly with their European partners. (Unlike The Greens, who embraced their lead candidate for Europe, Ska Keller). Political awkwardness due to decisions taken by political parties should not be a reason not to broadcast such important debates. But due to the systemic lack of transparency and accountability, we will never know what conversations were had by executives & producers with political party communications directors.
Have a human being explain why decisions are taken
That’s part of the problem with the BBC – their executives are seldom seen publicly explaining the decisions they take. They have their details published here, but how many of you knew that? Some of you may notice the presence of former Labour cabinet minister James Purnell as director of strategy. Ditto the presence of former Tory cabinet minister Lord Patten, until recently Chairman of the BBC Trust. Does the presence of former holders of political public office in senior BBC positions enhance or diminish the standing of the BBC in the eyes of the public? You can imagine the desire of political parties to get ‘their men’ (because it’s nearly always men) in such positions, but what about the wider impact on democracy?
Food for thought?