News isn’t a democracy – leave it to the experts

"Vox pops are a waste of time. I want news programmes presented by experts telling me expert things in an expert way," says Alison Graham

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The memories of doing vox pops as a young reporter can still make me hot with embarrassment. Sometimes I even wake up screaming: “No! No! Please don’t make me ask total strangers what they feel about being compelled by law to wear seat belts in cars.” (I realise I’ve just dated myself there, but I don’t care, I’m old and I’m proud.)

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As a naturally shy person then and now, walking up, completely cold, to someone in the street, introducing myself then hurling questions about anything from car parking charges to whether Hissing Sid was innocent (again, this dates me; younger readers will need to look it up on t’internet) engulfed me in mortification.

But vox pops – asking members of the public for their views on any topic, usually something they know nothing about – filled up pages of local newspapers then and they probably do so now. They were easy copy and you could pad the whole thing out with photographs of your hapless “victims”. One inside page, possibly, or if you were lucky, a double page spread, was done and dusted. Pure gold on a slow news day. And news days were always slow on local papers.

On television news programmes, though, vox pops are fatuous and pointless. This is not the fault of the hapless people who are roped in to giving their cherished opinions, I don’t blame them in the slightest for feeling compelled to burst forth to a breathless audience of total strangers when a TV camera is pointed straight at them.

But for those of us watching, it’s a waste of time. Why? Because vox pops aren’t news.

Now, I don’t want anyone trying to convince me that news in the 21st century is a democracy. It’s interactive, we can all join in – hence all of those pleas for tweets and emails from BBC Breakfast and its ilk (and local news programmes, which love vox pops). News isn’t a democracy. It’s proscribed simply by being news, ie things that are happening or happened recently. Unless we are directly involved, neither you nor I have any part to play, apart from as a bystander. I can’t imagine why anyone would wish to hear any tweet or email of mine read out by Bill/Susanna/Charlie/Louise on the Salford sofa about the weather (Wet, isn’t it? Hot, isn’t it?) or the recent royal birth (How lovely, it’s a healthy boy).

And why would anyone care what I think about the new royal baby’s name? Yet on the night the new prince was given his names, the BBC Ten o’Clock News, the BBC’s flagship, serious news programme, dribbled away time asking members of the public what they thought of “George Alexander Louis”. One man said, “Louis sounds a bit French.” A lady added, “Good luck to the guys.” Why, thank you. I feel better for hearing all of this.

What an unedifying use of precious seconds. There was even a second vox pop in the same bulletin, about Jane Austen on bank notes. No, no, no, no. Stop it. I want news programmes presented by experts telling me expert things in an expert way. Vox pops must be silenced, for good.

We didn’t need to see this

And another thing, BBC News. On the Ten o’Clock News, the day after the Italian coach crash that killed nearly 40 people, you showed footage of dead bodies, in white shrouds, lined up at the site of the accident. No, not on, ever. They were starkly recognisable as people, they weren’t bundled or somehow disguised.

To show this was unforgiveable and inexcusable. Not only because the images added another layer of unpleasantness to an already unnecessarily lurid account of the accident from reporter Alan Johnson but also because… just because. It’s wrong, and such footage adds nothing apart from gratifying the most morbidly curious of your audience.

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