Jeremy Bowen: TV news audiences can’t expect to be spoon-fed

"There's the website – there's loads of stuff on there. You've got to do a bit of work for yourself," says the BBC's Middle East editor

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In the age of the internet, there’s “no excuse” for TV news audiences not to do their homework, says the BBC’s Middle East editor Jeremy Bowen.

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Discussing the challenge of communicating the complexities of a country in brief news reports, Bowen said, “we can’t do it in one piece – you’ve got to do it in a number of pieces – and I think the audience as well need to do a little bit of work.

“There’s the website – there’s loads of stuff on there. I think you can’t expect to be spoon-fed, you’ve got to do a bit of work for yourself. Do a bit of homework as well.”

But Bowen – who has been covering the Middle East for 10 years – also acknowledged his duty to cater to different levels of understanding when delivering his three-minute packages for television news.

“It’s got to be like a layer cake in so far as someone who works at the foreign office who knows everything about the subject has to be able to get something out of it and at the same time someone who’s interested and intelligent but not necessarily well educated and informed has to get something out of it too. It’s a question of writing, scripting and nuance, of allusion sometimes, to be able to make it work on different levels. It’s not an easy process and often we fail.”

The journalist – who was appearing with his World Tonight colleagues Lyse Doucet and Ritula Shah at the Cheltenham Literature Festival – also discussed how he deals with the atrocities he has witnessed during his three decade-long career. “I have spent years going to dangerous places – it’s had a tremendous effect on my life because I think you’d have to be a stone not to be affected by it. 

“For me, the justification is the fact people need to know about what’s happening. We need to look into the dark corners of the world.”

But when a BBC colleague, Abed Takkoush, was killed in front of him in 2000, Bowen says he was “affected very badly”, prompting him to withdraw from frontline work for several years. 

“I tried to give up doing violence and war reporting,” he said, “and oddly enough part of my strategy was to be Middle East editor because at the time I got the job ten years ago there would be the occasional serious flare ups – there was a war in Lebanon in 2006 and every now and then there would be something in Gaza – but it wasn’t the place it is now.

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“While I tried to evade conflict, conflict came back and found me because I have to be in that part of the world and you cannot cover the Middle East – which is what I do – without accepting a degree of risk. I don’t like the riskier side but I can accept that and I can deal with it.”