This probably doesn’t come as much of a surprise to those of us who are interested in science and/or who know the BBC – but it’s interesting to see it in black and white nonetheless. The BBC’s Trust published the findings of its review into science coverage on Wednesday. It was carried out by the UCL academic, Emeritus professor of genetics, Steve Jones so it has pretty good credentials. The Guardian’s report highlights the depressing picture it paints of different parts of the BBC not only failing to collaborate and share precious resources but of being actively hostile to each other.
This is a problem the BBC never seems willing to address for all its talk of multi-platform, integration, One BBC etc. Radio doesn’t talk in a sensible, productive way with TV. Different networks act as if they belong to different organisations rather than seeing themselves as part of a multi-textured whole. Steve Jones’ report sets out in stark terms what an informed outsider thinks of the way just one part of the BBC behaves. It doesn’t paint a particularly positive picture of the way the BBC serves its license fee payers.
And another thing… science isn’t just another branch of entertainment. It’s kinda important.
As News International licks its wounds and withdraws its hugely popular News of the World from the history of British journalism, a quick anecdote involving its sister paper, The Sun, and its reputation in my home town, Liverpool.
Back in 1996, I was waiting in the departure lounge of Tashkent International airport (yes, gentle reader, the glamour of global journalism). I had been living there for 12 months heading up a media project for the EU. In front of me in the queue was a group of Scousers. They weren’t the usual Western visitors to Tashkent – businessmen, diplomats, charity workers, academics – but ordinary blokes in their thirties. I was “made up” to find some fellow Scousers so far from home so got chatting with them. What were they doing in Central Asia? “We’ve been working in the gold mines,” they replied. (There must have been some pretty eccentric careers advisers knocking around Liverpool schools back in the eighties.) “What’s it like working in a gold mine the middle of the Uzbek desert, miles from anywhere?” “Yeah, it’s OK. We live in trailers and of an evening there’s beer and some nice ladies.”
They asked me what I was doing in Tashkent. “I’m a journalist, ” I said. Their friendly smiles suddenly froze and there was silence. “You don’t work for the Sun, do you?” one of them eventually asked. “No, BBC World Service.” Palpable relief all round.
(Actually, I don’t think the Sun ever carries many Central Asian stories)
In July this year, I left the BBC after 22 years. This is my journey beyond the BBC and into the unknown.
On 1st July 2011, I will cease to be a BBC employee. I will hand over my dangly ID and henceforth my only relationship with the BBC will be as a license fee payer. I will no longer be able to waltz into a newsroom and rearrange a running order, write the lead story or demand the presence of correspondents on air. And for some reason, I really don’t mind.
I’ve worked at BBC World Service since 1989. It was where I’d always wanted to work and I loved it. By the mid 90s, I was in my dream job as a World Service journalist and had the time of my life working with some fantastic editors, producers, presenters and reporters from all over the world on Newshour and the World Today. We were full of ideas, phone bashed like crazy to get people on air, never gave up, spoke God knows how many languages between us, travelled to bizarre corners of the World and had fun. I learnt so much in that department.
I did work in other parts of the BBC too (eg Good Morning Scotland, Today in Parliament), but always felt drawn back to Bush House.
In recent years, I’ve been in the Newsroom at World Service. The newsroom deals with fact – fact without the trimmings. The emphasis is on the written word, providing a definitive summary of the world that could be relied on as accurate and impartial. News room programmes – bulletins and World Briefing – were programmes of record and that meant correspondents’ despatches, live reporting and clips of the main players. That’s exciting when there’s a big breaking news story and you’re taking listeners around the world to build up a picture of a developing event. But most of the time, putting together that kind of programme isn’t very exciting. When you go on air in the studio, your main job is to watch the clock to make sure all the material fits the time slot, hitting all those “hard posts” which enable rebroadcasters to opt in and out of our schedule.
As time went on, I realised I was becoming bored and losing confidence in my ability to make programmes.
Then I met Claire Wardle. She’d just started running one-day courses for BBC journalists on “Making the Web Work for You.” I signed up and went on one of the first ones. My God, she packs a lot in to a one day course! I was such a social media beginner, the vast majority of it went way over my head and by the end of the day, I’d forgotten everything I’d learnt in the morning and felt a bit unwell. But I was really excited by it all and over the next few months, I invested some time into exploring the various tools and ideas she’d talked about. I was still a novice, but I was a happy novice getting excited when I found practical applications for these new skills.
But there was another consequence of her course. I found myself becoming more and more interested in the processes of journalism and less interested in the stories themselves. Yeah, yeah so it’s another election somewhere in the world, but how are different journalists and media organisations and start-ups finding the new angles, verifying the facts, sharing the story? It was an exciting world and I felt left behind.
So now I find myself living on the edge of the Pennines having left London after 22 years. My husband now works at BBC North, soon to transfer to MediaCity. For a long time, I desperately wanted to work there too, excited by a new project. But I gradually realised my heart wasn’t in it any more. If I was going to relocate to the other end of the country, it seemed silly to just shoehorn myself into an unsatisfactory BBC job when I could take the opportunity to reinvent myself completely. I was lucky my husband had a full time job now and I had the luxury of not having to be a breadwinner. It seemed foolish to let this freedom go to waste. So I took voluntary redundancy from the World Service which, following savage cuts, was having to shed staff by the van-load.
To cut a long-ish story short, that’s how I’ve found myself about to become a visiting lecturer in radio journalism at the University of Salford on its BA degree course (so I will be working in MediaCity after all!) I’m also seriously looking for research opportunities and am pretty sure that’ll be in the “geeky” end of journalism, thanks to Dr Wardle’s inspiration. But the first step is to see whether I actually like being back in academia. I think I will. When I left the University of Sheffield, I was adamant I did not want to stay on as a post-graduate. I wanted to get a proper job and do something useful! But there was always a little niggle at the back of my mind telling me I would probably end up back in academia some day.
So, that’s pretty much how I got to this point. I’m at the start of a journey and, as I hope you can tell, I’m pretty excited about it.