‘The race for ratings means UK news channels are missing the real stories’

Acclaimed documentary film-maker Roger Graef says that the BBC, Channel 4 and other British broadcasters should look beyond Donald Trump and Boris Johnson and stop treating "geopolitics as entertainment"

Donald Trump (Getty, EH)

There’s a famous New Yorker cover by cartoonist Saul Steinberg of The View of the World from 9th Avenue: the bottom half shows Manhattan’s 9th and 10th Avenue. The top is the rest of the world. The US is the size of the three New York blocks bounded by Canada and Mexico. The Pacific Ocean separates the US from tiny images of China, Japan and Russia. Europe is missing altogether.

Advertisement

What would the world from England look like now? A huge London, mostly Westminster, a few cities like Birmingham, Liverpool and Manchester, much smaller Scotland, Wales and even smaller Northern Ireland. Across the channel, a hodgepodge of European countries, mostly France and Germany, with holiday places in Spain and Italy. Africa, Asia and South America would barely get a look-in. The US would loom large.

Given that the fate of the UK is soon to be decided by 27 European countries, the lack of detailed coverage of European affairs is shocking. All foreign coverage in UK media has declined by 40 per cent since 1979 – according to a 2010 report by the Media Standards Trust. It has continued despite the EU referendum.

Unreported World (C4) and This World (BBC2) are excellent, but fight for their slots. There are islands of global insight on Channel 4 News, Panorama, Dispatches and Newsnight. All are overshadowed by media coverage of Trump’s every move, and issues like crime and prisons in the US. They are important, but less relevant to us than understanding what’s happening in Europe.

Serious geopolitical shifts go largely unreported, except by the admirable BBC Europe editor, Katya Adler. Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic and Turkey are in the grip of authoritarian regimes that do not share our values. Populist nationalist fervour is gaining ground in Italy and Germany, with elections soon. The far right is building support in both countries, with Silvio Berlusconi coming back in Italy.

The pressure for ratings traps commissioners into ignoring matters in the rest of the world – except for Trump, natural disasters, terrorism, war and famine. When they get our attention, it’s saturation coverage. But when the caravan moves on to the next story, where is the followup? 24/7 coverage gives the illusion of more news. UK coverage on Westminster rumours drives out foreign stories. The disproportionate focus on larger-than-life characters such as Trump (whose tweets provide an easy daily headline) and, in the UK, Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage, treats geopolitics as entertainment.

It does not do justice to the complexity and dynamic nature of each country’s situation or their effect on each other and the rest of the world. Just as the Foreign Office and World Service have cut their services to some countries, networks that once had foreign correspondents based locally around the world have closed most of them. And yet local knowledge is a crucial tool for accurate reporting. Wikipedia is not a source.

Fake news is like Dutch elm disease, an epidemic in social media spread by hundreds of Russian sites to change the media and political landscape in the French and US elections and other countries too. Facebook, Google and Twitter are their (unwitting?) accomplices.

Advertisement

In this globalised interdependent world, there’s never been a time when we needed more careful, in-depth, trustworthy reporting of local situations. Viewers may prefer their box sets and reality TV to reality. But it is the latter that will affect their lives, and their children’s lives. Attention must be paid.