Media smoke and mirrors

Phil Parry looks at the relationship between politicians and the media

As the fallout continues over the way the announcement was made for the preferred route of the £1 billion M4 relief road, and revelations that the minister responsible has not done a live broadcast interview for three years, I thought I had better let you into a secret:  it’s all fake anyway.

The whole relationship between the media and politicians is an unholy alliance.

Interviews are often given only along agreed lines, TV pictures are manipulated and radio audiences can be just a few people.

Most journalists, with honourable exceptions, know that if they report what the punters really want to hear, they will be frozen out of any dialogue, not given access to key people, made to feel uncomfortable in press conferences, and removed from information lists.

Sports journalism is probably the worst.

This area is dominated by multi-million pound contracts, and being granted access to star players. I was once drafted in to a sports department to work on an investigation, when the officials I had just been making inquiries about, wandered into the Editor’s office next door, to discuss broadcasting rights.

After a politician has been exposed in a misdemeanor, he or she will mysteriously turn the phone off and be uncontactable.

Once the heat has died down and the politician is off the front pages, he or she will emerge to do interviews but only within strict parameters.

The questions must be focused on the information the politician wants to give, not necessarily what the viewer, listener or reader wants to hear. Sometimes the politician will even demand sight of questions beforehand. I always resisted this, partly because I had no idea what I was going to ask. Requests are also made to see the television item, or view the written article before it is published. This, effectively, gives the person a right of veto and is usually refused.

A curious tango is undertaken, once a politician has emerged from hiding, where the journalist will know certain areas are off-limits and should not be asked or the interviewee will walk out, and the politician, meanwhile, can be fairly secure he can impart the information he wants.

I was always getting into trouble for asking questions I was apparently not meant to ask. Official complaints were made to my superiors, legal threats were given, and access to that politician from then on became extremely difficult. In a recent incident where a Welsh government minister was sacked he toured TV studios on the evening of his departure clutching a statement which he said he would read out, but refused to answer any questions.

In any arena of TV journalism, not just in politics, the picture is paramount. Recorded interviews are edited usually, although not always, so that the meaning is not changed.To cover the edits a shot known as a ‘noddy’ is needed. In most cases the interview is filmed using a single camera, and this is turned round afterwards to film an artificial shot of the reporter nodding, which can then be placed over an edit to simulate listening.

Nowadays there is more tendency for interview edits to fade to black, so that the cut is obvious. which is far more transparent. Because filming has become much cheaper now, smaller cameras are sometimes used to film the reporter during the interview itself. The editing shots that are then used from the other camera’s film, are natural nodding to a statement and they look less artificial. News interviews on television have become ever shorter, so now just a ‘clip’ is normally used – sometimes supplied by another reporter – and this does not require any editing.

Back in the day, during a formal, longer, interview filmed for a TV current affairs investigation, a ‘two-shot’ was all-important. A two-shot is when the reporter and subject are in the same frame – usually sat down – during the interview itself. As these were critical for the editing process, the two-shot would often be filmed beforehand, in case the subject became so angry with the questions during the interview he or she walked out making it impossible. I have filmed these editing two-shots beforehand on many occasions.

Viewing, listening or circulation figures are also absolutely critical. Statements about ‘public service’ and a ‘broader remit’ are usually nonsense. It is popularity that counts.

There will, for example, be no more dedicated Panorama reporters on BBC TV now.

415 BBC news jobs are being axed and many, including the veteran reporter John Sweeney, are leaving the corporation.These details were greeted with a cry of anguish from one insider who reportedly said: “It’s an outrage that a frontline, flagship show like Panorama is taking the brunt of the cuts when the BBC is packed to the gills with worthless leeches.”

This does not tell of an organisation where morale is sky-high.

Serious TV current affairs journalism, which is expensive but does not necessarily receive good ratings, is almost certainly now over.

In radio the monthly listening, or RAJAR, figures are endlessly pored over. I once hosted a political debate show on radio called grandly The People’s Assembly, which toured the country going to sports centres or town halls all over Wales. This was transmitted live, or recorded to time ‘as-live’, so that securing an audience was vital, although the numbers were less important, as it was on radio.

I would always be stationed at the entrance to the building, minutes before the debate began, to encourage the audience to attend. Sometimes we would even gather people from the street who thought they were going to something else entirely.

On one famous occasion we shared the building with ‘weight-watchers’. A series of fairly large people would approach and I always excitedly inquired:  “People’s assembly debate?”

I would invariably receive the response: “No. Weight-watchers.”

One particularly large person approached and I wearily waved my arm. “Weight-watchers is that way,”  I said.

“People’s assembly debate!”  I was told angrily. “I’m the local political agent!”

So the moral is – never trust what you see.

Phil Parry is the Editor of Wales Eye.

7 thoughts on “Media smoke and mirrors

  1. Thanks for this article, very interesting . So politicians are now really bit part players who have a prepared script written by their agent .Maybe they could wear hearing aids where they could just mime to the agents pre written script.

  2. Heartened by the announcement a few weeks (months now?) ago about Beeb Wales holding firm on the location for their new HQ in Central Cardiff…despite urgings (and claims of an ‘agreement’?) that new HQ would cosy up to the Senedd in the Bay. Keep the distance!

  3. These circumstances have led to the BBC losing its reputation and position as the world’s pre-eminent independent news broadcaster. The always tabloid and superficial nature of BBC news programmes is very evident and the way they always reflect the dominant frame of reference and never question it is depressing. Journalists agree and more and more of the public are coming to realise that the nearest we have to a serious, thorough, not-very-biased news broadcaster now is Al Jazeera. If you want to know what’s happening around the world, it’s your best bet.

  4. This comes a no surprise as the politicians seem to have created a perfect situation for them ,whilst the people who pay for the media are being denied full and open scrutiny. You cannot blame individual journalists,however the management at BBC Wales/CYMRU seem full wedded to the welsh ‘project’,and have jumped into bed with political classes down the Bay of Silence. In a properly functioning media no politician should be able to manipulate access to the general public to ‘get their message across’,without opening themselves to questioning from journalists. With regard to the coverage of sport by BBC Wales it truly deserves an independent review/report (from someone outside Wales) as quite frankly it stinks!!. As reported the cosy relationship with WRU by BBC/S4C is well known as many of the reporters/commentators seem to have feet in several different camps. The new deal for Pro 12 rugby which is very bad value for payers of TV Licence as the quality of rugby provided is appalling,and level standards of object commentary/punditry is very poor. I know a lot of former players who watch the English matches on BT of a Friday evening rather than the rubbish on Scrum V in its entirety.The welsh regions last year did not a)qualify for the top 4 tournament a end of season,b) did got out of group stages of HC yet again.The crowds are appallingly low,with season tickets being sold on a 2 for 1 basis which shows a lack a demand from supporters.It now appears that SKY have now rights to cover certain/best matches matches they wish as they have lost the English league to BT,so we will be left with the leftovers.In conclusion when you have third/fourth rate politicians running public services and a less than objective media watching, and scrutinising them on our behalf then you know the ‘fix’is in!!.

  5. As an ex politician who didn’t mind doing live interviews I would like to make a few points in defence of my former profession. Why do political interviews rarely reveal anything?
    1 Anything you say that is slightly original or that differs minutely from the party line is instantly seized upon as a party split story.
    2 Generally sound bites only are permitted.You cannot say anything complicated that cannot be reduced to 20 seconds.
    3 If something complicated cannot be avoided it has to be explained by another journalist in the studio.
    4 Numbers and their graphical representation are almost always avoided. If statistics are quoted they will rarely if ever be subjected to analysis. e.g. X has improved/declined by 200% since last year….no one points out that X has gone from 1 to 2. or vice versa.
    Having made those points I largely agree with Phil`s piece but it doesn’t have to be such an unholy alliance. Channel 4 News usually manage to hold power to account.Their recent coverage of the war in Gaza should shame the BBC.

  6. I don’t know how many people actually listened to Peoples’ Assembly but it was arguably one of the best current affairs programmes going… “We like controversy on this show!” People not only got to tackle Wales’ ‘leading’ politicians live on air about the issue(s) of that very day, often without the deference they were used to, but it meant that audience members actually got face-to-face opportunities with decision makers they may not otherwise have had.

    On more than one occasion an audience member with a real problem was able to approach the relevant Assembly Member or even the Minister after the show to put their case. A couple that come to mind were a young lady from Anglesey demanding better facilities for young cancer sufferers who had to travel to Alder Hey in Liverpool several times a week. Another was a gymnastics coach with a promising young squad who couldn’t get any funding – but she did after collaring the Minister after the show….

    I was at the show that went out live on the evening the Gilligan ‘affair’ hit the BBC. The day media professionals were crying live on TV… Nobody knew whether it would actually broadcast through the strike until the last minute but it went out. On my way out I told the producer I thought the show would now be axed as part of the BBC’s sudden paranoia about editorial control over live broadcasts and a few weeks later it was axed. Shame!

    The show also acted as a springboard for people to get involved in the much better range of TV current affairs programmes that existed 10 years ago. Now the term ‘controlled media’ barely seems adequate in Wales as most of the controversial topics have now been placed off-limits by all the broadcasters and most of the dead-tree media. Only the group-think narratives are put out by the media. The people in Wales are now blatantly and unashamedly being treated as mushrooms!

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