Thursday, October 04, 2007

The BBC and the thin edge of the wedge

I had written a letter to the BBC and the Press Council about this a few months back; curious that I overlooked publishing it here. The Press Council responded that they did not think any ethical border had been crossed, and the BBC inexplicably said that they definitely mind their grammar, and thanked me for the letter. Sigh.

Dear Ma'am/Sir,

I write today to bring to your attention a most vile practice the media in general, and the BBC in this instance, thinks it acceptable to stoop to.

Here are the two articles I refer to below:

a) "Scheme to aid duped Indian brides" published on the Web on 23 February 2007

b) "India re-assesses menstrual forms" published on the Web on 12 April 2007.

The first one seemed to me to be a sample of shoddy journalism, and I wrote to the BBC via their web-form (it drew no response), mentioning in particular that:

> 1. It had two pictures, the first of which showed the backs of vaguely Indian looking unidentified women at an unstated venue, not engaged in any particular activity, apart from the act of standing. How this picture was germane to the article is beyond me.

Some weeks later, I see that they used the same picture in a subsequent article, which had nothing to do with brides, duped or otherwise, titled "India re-assesses menstrual forms" with the caption "Female civil servants say they are being discriminated against".

The last time these three Indian-looking women showed us their backs, the caption read "The women will be entitled to financial assistance".

This picture is cropped a little in the second article, and so one of the ladies (all of whom have gone from being a duped bride to a discriminated female civil servant) is missing.

From this, I see that the BBC does not care whether or not a picture in an article has anything to do with the article itself. This is disturbing, and it is long past the thin edge of the wedge. What's next? A picture of a ugly brute thrashing a child, captioned "Muslim families protest against domestic violence" - the journalist probably will get away with it, even if the man is not Muslim, or the pair are professional actors from a Hollywood movie, assuming what was intended was a vilification of the Muslim male or middle-eastern/Asian family values, all at the expense of a little thing called integrity. Even if Muslim males are actually harsh to their wives and children, I would still insist that a "fake" picture not be used.
Not every "news story" needs a picture. If the BBC does not have one relevant to the story, they may not take a random one from their probably immense database.

Laxity of integrity is dangerous, and must not be resorted to, even in cases which appear to be harmless. For instance, when one writes about "World leaders discuss African poverty", one can put in a random image of a small, scantily clad, black skinned African child with haunting eyes titling it "Many children in Africa live dangerously below the poverty line"; this picture could have been taken fifteen years ago, for there are no distinguishing marks in the background. However, journalism is not art. Art can (and often strives to) be representational. Journalism is about specific incidents, with specific people, and entertainment and base gratification ought not to be part of its brief.

Quite apart from this, is another issue this abuse of visual impact raises. Does the BBC seek out certain stereotypes and attempt to propagate them, out of boredom or interest? In this case, we see vaguely brown skinned women, wearing a certain sort of dress. Indian citizens have various racial types and modes of dress, both reflecting often enough upon their religion and language. I see no reason why these women should be shown with their backs to the camera. Why backs, and not more distinguishable or prettier parts of their anatomy? If one accompanies adverse articles on Venezuela with images of drug lords and their gunned-down victims, or writes flattering articles showing grand horses and fine boulevards, one achieves rather different results. Pair an article on China with a peasant wearing a hat, and it reinforces China's poverty and backwardness. A picture can be a less exact vehicle of truth than ten hundred words. There should be no word limit for stating the truth.

If their column-inches prerogative denies a comprehensive view, then that's where I expect a native sense of fair play to drive the paring-down process. If a murder is committed, one can devise the headline as "Murder at Kensington last night", or "Murderer was black", or "Murder: attacker was drunk Chelsea supporter", or "Blonde mother of two killed", or "Cheating woman slain", or "Born again Christian charged with homicide", all of which might be perfectly true, but all of which are prevarications, not very subtly aiming to lead the reader to a partisan view. How about "Human being kills human being", for every human life ought to be treated as equally valuable in the main, irrespective of alcohol level in blood (of the victim or the accused), race, religion, clothes, immigrant status, apparent motive et cetera. It is quite possible that it was a hate crime, or one of passion, or just a horrible case of mistaken identity, but this is subordinate to the basic fact (that one killed another). All extenuating and exacerbating factors might indeed have a part to play in the overall scheme of things but they may scarcely be neatly assigned into a cause-and-effect flow diagram, which is what a sensational headline usually seeks to do.

I could ramble on (if such a mild word be permitted to the anguish, indignation and anger I experience), for though I have long given up television and newspaper subscription, I occasionally do look at journalism today, and care enough to write about it. If you believe I have naively misunderstood the matter, please feel free to so inform me. Perhaps I should think of becoming a Style Consultant, the consideration of style not encroaching upon a sincere desire for the whole truth, or as much of it be known.

My original letter (sent via the BBC's web-form, as I mention earlier) to the first article drew no answer from the BBC, hence I write to you. As a matter of form, I intend to also send the BBC a written complaint, but I'm not certain I shall get any response this time either.

Wishing us all years of of ethical journalism, founded on fairness and a respect for truth, I remain,
Sincerely yours,

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