In the past week the UK national media have run over 150 news stories and comment pieces about seagulls.
The seagull has well and truly unseated the false widow spider of recent years to be the media's scare story of choice for the summer. To put the numbers into some perspective, at peak hysteria the false widow spider only generated 54 pieces of national coverage in its busiest week.
The Times, downplaying the media's role in whipping up seagull-related hysteria, has taken pause to ponder the nature of this "primeval dread", suspecting it might be innate in our psyches:
"Somewhere, deep down, we fear nature’s revenge. That fear discharges, irrationally, because it’s there and we’ll never get rid of it. Seagulls are not, commonsense informs us, a real risk to mankind but this year we fear them."
Others have been less thoughtful in their coverage:
The Daily Star, a long-time fan of animal scare stories, leads the way in reporting the "seagull terror" from above with stories of "seagulls waging war on mutant rats" to claims that "vicious seagulls will attack and kill babies".
It should be stressed no babies have been killed. In fact, the reality to date has often been a lot less shocking. While the Daily Mail and others did report that a pensioner and a four-year-old boy both needed medical attention after being pecked by the "seagull menace" and a couple of pets have been killed, the Star also informs us that a family was "forced to flee a guest house when a plague of noisy seagulls kept them awake all night". That may have been frustrating but it doesn't feel like a national news story.
In the main the victims have reportedly been ice creams, pasties and sausage rolls but that hasn't discouraged the media from setting about the story like a flock of hungry seagulls mobbing a discarded chip packet.
It is a situation which has even brought journalists into direct contact with the "bloodthirsty", "terror-inducing" menaces. The Telegraph reported a "particularly sadistic" seagull attacked one of its journalists and a photographer as they left an ice cream shop in Brighton.
According to an outraged headline on The Mirror’s website: "British parents should be JAILED for smacking their children says United Nations report".
The Express wades in with "British parents should be JAILED for smacking their kids, warn UN human rights bureaucrats".
Those damn human rights bureaucrats, how dare they! Coming over here, protecting our children.
To illustrate the sort of behaviour these bureaucrats want to outlaw, the Express has used an image (posed by models, obviously) of a mother about to smack her child around the face with the kind of forehand smash a tennis player might be proud of. Presumably the Express thinks allowing this would be preferable to giving in to the outrageous whims and recommendations of "meddling" human rights "do-gooders":
However, it should be pointed out the UN’s recommendation actually says: "The state should take practical steps, including through legislative measures where appropriate, to put an end to corporal punishment in all settings, including the home, throughout the United Kingdom."
Which seems entirely reasonable. Tellingly there’s no mention at all of parents being thrown in jail, or of the UN recommending any such a punishment.
(Hat tip: @PrimlyStable)
When the Conservatives won a majority at the general election it was clear the BBC was in for a tough time, with charter renewal on the horizon and Tory election favours to be repaid to media owners who stand to benefit from any cuts to the BBC.
BBC Director General Tony Hall addressed this point on Tuesday, when he said: "There is a view that prefers a much diminished BBC. It’s a view that is often put forward by people with their own narrow commercial interests."
Thursday saw culture secretary John Whittingdale announce how far reaching a review of the BBC may be.
The Conservatives of course have made no secret of being in favour of private enterprise and a smaller state. As such, it is only natural they would court mutual back-scratching from wealthy media owners and want to shrink the BBC. And in a country where the media is predominantly, openly right-leaning it is understandable the government finds the BBC's even-handedness inconvenient and outdated. The government's claims of bias are just one part of a PR offensive intended to justify cuts, but many of the arguments don't stand up.
The coverage of Margaret Thatcher's death in 2013 neatly summed up the issue of the BBC's supposed bias when as many people complained that it was too favourable to Thatcher as complained that it was too critical. Those on the right of British politics may well have been appalled to hear any criticism of Thatcher. And those on the left may have been appalled to hear anybody remember her fondly. But what both sides were really complaining about was balance, not bias.
Likewise the suggestion the BBC is bad for local media. Sadly, it seems a more pressing issue is that local media owners are bad for local media as highlighted by recent strike actions. Under-investment in both journalism and effective digital strategies, alongside poor commercial planning and management and the inability to keep pace with changing consumer behaviours affecting all media, are hurting local media far more than a competitor that has been around for decades. But if you were the boss of a local or regional media company who would you blame for the falling quality of your product? Certainly not yourself. Far easier to blame the BBC, especially when there are high-profile allies in media and government who will nod and agree and amplify your complaints.
The accusation that the BBC has gone "chasing ratings" clearly has a grounding in truth. After all, what broadcaster doesn't want to draw an audience and it is the BBC's job to bring people together in good times, bad times, fun times and important times. While programming such as The Voice (X Factor without the hit singles) or celebrity gymnastics show Tumble (Splash without the swimming pool) may expose the extent to which the BBC has made some bad bets in the name of popular entertainment, the obvious risk aversion and lack of imagination behind such decisions arguably makes a case for giving the BBC more room to breathe, not less. But much of this is subjective and the debate cannot become about individual shows or even channels and stations.
Objecting to the licence fee because you can name a handful of programmes, or even whole channels or stations you don't like makes about as much sense as walking out of a restaurant refusing to pay the bill after an excellent, fairly-priced meal because there were other things on the menu you wouldn't have liked if you had ordered them.
The BBC's greatest strength is the choice it offers across online, television and radio. But the choice needs to be rich and diverse and underpinned by an awareness that the value of all content cannot be judged one uniform way. Simply suggesting the BBC should do more of this, or less of that, ignores the subtle economics of content. Somebody who only watches niche documentaries on BBC4 may cry foul that their licence fee funds big budget prime time shows on BBC1 but 300,000 people watching a documentary on BBC4 are arguably getting far greater value for money than 10 million watching The Voice, because they are getting a scarce product for the same price as a more commoditised product.
People enjoying the BBC's factual and documentary output benefit from the licence fee in a way that simply couldn't be recreated under any other funding model. One television historian told me commercial broadcasters may still commission occasional historical documentaries "but only if they are about Nazis or the Titanic". He was joking. But only just.
Nothing characterises the BBC's dilemma more than sport. Damned if it shows too much, damned if it shows too little. Take the recent example of the BBC being sidelined in the world of Olympic coverage which resulted in angry criticisms of the Corporation. The BBC arguably taught the world how to broadcast sport but is now being pushed to the periphery because money talks and the BBC is having to keep its voice down.
Love it or hate it, the role of sport in creating those moments which unite us should not be underestimated, nor should the impact of the BBC losing rights, because without its involvement sport is reaching ever-smaller audiences - the current Ashes series being a prime example. Currently the rights owners, such as sports' governing bodies, don't seem to care but in time they surely will.
As I write this I am in California and last night met up with a British journalist based over here. He told me: "The longer I spend away from the UK, the more I realise how important the BBC is."
This current challenge to the BBC should encourage us all to review and fully appreciate what the BBC means to us.
Of course there are things we'd all change about the BBC if we could and we're all entitled to our moans - not least because - for now - we pay for it, not advertisers and not the government through a central budget. Keeping the licence fee separate from general taxation and annual government budget reviews gives us all a direct claim over the services we receive and research shows the majority of us still favour the licence fee as the preferred way of funding the BBC (ICM, 2014).
As Tony Hall pointed out: "The BBC does not belong to the government. The BBC belongs to the country. The public are our shareholders. So it is their voice that will matter most in this debate."
It certainly should not be left to a handful of rival media owners, the government and their hand-picked advisors - some with their own commercial interests - to decide what happens to the BBC.
For more on this subject, see:
The "mind-blowing excess" of BBC tea-drinkers
BBC critics ramp up their attacks
Bullish BBC boss comes out swinging
Telegraph bashes BBC for doing its research
BBC bashed for "lavish" lambing largesse
The Media Blog is now six years old. Below are the top 10 posts from the first six years...
Monday's Daily Star reliably reported:
"Telly hit Top Gear smashed ratings records as millions tuned in last night to see axed host Jeremy Clarkson's final appearance... Last night's final episode starring Jezza, James May and Richard Hammond clocked up huge viewing figures for the BBC."
However, the story, which may well have been written even before Sunday's Top Gear had aired and certainly before official viewing figures were published, was a little wide of the mark.
Cue the kind of high-speed U-turn The Stig would be proud of, with Tuesday's Daily Star reporting:
"Motormouth Jeremy Clarkson's last ever Top Gear show went out with a whimper rather than a bang. Only 5.3 million viewers bothered to tune in on Sunday night for the big farewell."
The truth is somewhere in between. Top Gear's 5.3 million viewers neither "smashed ratings records" as claimed by the Daily Star on Monday, nor could it be classed a "flop" as claimed by the Daily Star on Tuesday. The viewing figures were marginally up on the previous episode of Top Gear (5.1 million) shown back in March and level with the first episode of the most recent series shown back in January (5.3 million).
Only the Daily Express could celebrate the potential of extending the life expectancy of Britain's ageing population while also bemoaning the swelling of the working-age population - all on the same front page.
The Express makes no secret of the fact it likes old people and doesn't really like foreign people coming over here, getting jobs, paying their taxes and making a net contribution to the UK economy. But such is the paper's dedication to its 'old people good, foreign people bad' narrative it is happy to disregard the economic consequences of Britain's ageing population living longer, the bearing that might have on the overall population and the resultant need therefore to increase the working-age population.
Chris Evans on 7 September 2014 saying he'll never present Top Gear:
Chris Evans on 11 March 2015 saying he'll never present Top Gear:
Chris Evans on 16 June 2015 after confirming he'll be the new presenter on Top Gear:
Another week, another slightly over-reaching attack on the BBC from the Daily Mail, the most bizarre element of which is the headline criticism of the BBC's tea budget.
The paper reports the BBC spends around £230,000 per year on tea which is undoubtedly a lot of money, but to put it into some perspective it works out at a little over £10 per employee per year - or two cups of tea per member of staff, per day.
However, according to the Mail, two cups of tea per day is an example of "staggering waste" and "mind-blowing excess".
Somebody probably needs to get out more.
Of course not everybody drinks tea but if you factor in the thousands of visitors to BBC properties per month, attending events, meetings or taking part in shows, it’s easy to see how the BBC, in common with any large organisation, could brew its way through a staggering amount of tea.
The wider context here is the suggestion by the Mail that the BBC is wasting licence fee payers' money by spending "less than half" of a £5.1bn budget "on programmes".
It's a claim the BBC was quick to take issue with.
According to the BBC's own figures, the corporation last year received around £3.5bn from the licence fee (after handing over £256m for S4C and to support government broadband and local TV projects). Of that budget it spent £3.1bn on getting content on air. That means 88 per cent of licence fee money went on content.
What the Mail has had to do in order to get to "less than half" is include the BBC's successful commercial activities, not funded by the licence fee, in the overall budget of £5.1bn and more importantly ignore a great many significant costs that go towards getting programmes on air.
For example, the Mail has ignored relevant costs such as newsrooms, broadcast equipment, edit suites, studio lighting and all associated operating costs such as office space and wages for writers and researchers.
In its article the Mail also suggests the BBC has "pumped money into its commercial arm" however, the BBC's figures show the reverse is true - that the BBC's commercial arm returned £174m into BBC coffers due to the success of shows such as Doctor Who which are exported overseas by BBC Worldwide. The BBC's commercial arm made up £1.4bn - or 27 per cent - of the BBC's budget.
Other issues raised by the Mail in its article included the fact 12 BBC managers have the word "controller" in their job title. It's unclear why this is a problem. The paper has also resurrected a year-old story about a BBC employee expensing some cupcakes to pad out this latest rap sheet of "mind-blowing excess".
There has been a lot of criticism of the BBC in the papers this week and it seems when doing so it is now obligatory for all journalists to liken absolutely everything to a scene from BBC comedy W1A.
Take the BBC running free training courses for disabled people who want to be weather presenters, for example. "Some have likened the decision to the BBC’s own spoof comedy W1A," reports the Telegraph, while the Daily Mail says such a "'box-ticking exercise' sounds like a story line from the BBC's own spoof comedy W1A". Mail columnist Richard Littlejohn adds that it "is straight out of the BBC's own, self-parodying series W1A" and the Express suggested such initiatives "mirror onscreen comedy W1A". The Times meanwhile declared: "It could be a plot straight out of the BBC's self-parodying show W1A" and an unnamed source told The Sun "W1A is meant to be a parody, not a documentary".
That latter quote bore a striking resemblance to another quote obtained by The Sun earlier in the week, when a critic of BBC outsourcing costs told the paper: "W1A is supposed to be a comedy, not a fly-on-the-wall documentary".
And what about the BBC changing its staff appraisal processes? "The BBC has aped its own mockumentary W1A," claims the Express, while the Mail pointed out it was "a move which could have come from a plot line to comedy show W1A" and The Times wrote: "BBC bosses have been accused of behaving like their comic counterparts in the show W1A."
And then there was the controller of BBC One who put a lunch on expenses, which sounded "very W1A", to The Times.
Or how about the BBC paying professional services companies such as KPMG and Deloitte to do things like audit its accounts? Not the stuff of comedy you might have thought, but "critics likened the spend to something out of W1A" nonetheless according to the Mail.
BBC critics ramp up their attacks
The Daily Mail and The Sun have this week ramped up their attacks on the BBC, perhaps sensing blood following the General Election and the appointment of BBC critic John Whittingdale as culture secretary.
The most desperate of the Mail's recent criticisms of the BBC picks up on what newspapers Auntie reads. We've seen this story before. It was a pretty shaky story back in 2012 and still doesn't stand up to much scrutiny now.
"The BBC has been accused of 'propping up its friends in the Left-wing media'" claims the Mail, adding the Guardian is "the most popular title in its offices by far" with 80,679 copies bought last year. "By far" is possibly a stretch. The total number of copies of the Guardian circulating at the BBC last year outnumbered copies of the second-placed Daily Mail (78,463) by just 2.7%. Third-placed was The Times (77,167) and fourth The Telegraph (75,308) suggesting right-wing newspapers are more than well-represented within the BBC.
In fact, the overall figures reveal right-wing newspapers circulating around the BBC outnumber left-wing papers considerably.
Meanwhile, The Sun this week claimed: "BEEB BLOWS £100k A WEEK ON PR GURUS". It was a story eagerly seized upon by the Mail who went with lower case and decided to write the number out in full: "BBC blows £100,000 a week on PR gurus".
However, neither headline was particularly accurate. The Mail explained: "the BBC hired 11 firms [including] well-known market leaders… Deloitte, KPMG and PWC" - none of which, it should be pointed out, are "well-known" PR companies or even "gurus" for that matter.
Perhaps both papers thought explaining the BBC had spent a lot of money on auditing, accounting, systems integration and management consultancy, as most large firms do, didn't sound profligate enough so went with "PR gurus" instead.
The Mail wasn’t even sure what these companies were doing at the BBC but suggests they may have been advising on things such as "health and safety" and "money".
You could argue the Mail firing off an angry article when they didn’t really know what they were angry about is a bit shoddy, but actually that's also the BBC's fault according to the Taxpayers' Alliance who are never far away from such stories.
“The Taxpayers' Alliance… told MailOnline the BBC should 'come clean' on exactly what the consultants were brought in to do. Andy Silvester, campaign director for the Taxpayers' Alliance, said: 'Licence fee payers deserve more transparency. Consultants can occasionally help save money in the long term but how can you judge that if we have no idea what they are doing on a day to day basis.”
Good question. How can you judge this without all the facts? Quite easily apparently. The Mail is certainly in no doubt that this is an outrageous sum of money. However, the Mail doesn’t tell us what would be a reasonable amount of money for an organisation the size of the BBC to spend with such companies.
A BBC spokesman told the Mail:
"On occasion, just like any other organisation, we use external companies for specialist services. This saves the BBC millions of pounds because it is cheaper than employing permanent, full-time staff to carry out work which could only last a short period."
And finally...to the weather. The Sun, the Mail, the Telegraph and a host of other outlets have all picked up a story this week about the BBC apparently recruiting an unqualified, disabled weather presenter.
The story isn't quite as billed, of course. There is no job and there is no job ad and the BBC certainly isn't about to put an inexperienced weather presenter on-screen based purely on the fact they are disabled. Rather there is BBC Academy course offering experience and training to would-be weather presenters with a disability:
"The BBC Academy is running a free training opportunity to provide an introduction to the world of weather presenting to help men and women with a disability feel comfortable appearing on television, radio and online presenting weather bulletins."
Participants will be given training and "experience in presenting weather bulletins to camera" but crucially there is no promise of a job at the end. Those who complete the training "will be eligible to apply for future vacancies in the team" but the suggestion the BBC is in the process of appointing a weather presenter on a "no qualifications necessary, must be disabled" basis is a clear distortion.
For more of this sort of thing, see:
BBC bashed for "lavish" lambing largesse
Telegraph bashes BBC for doing its research
"Champagne perks" turn out to be meeting rooms
BBC braced for Glasto "junket" jibes
Daily Mail admits BBC claims were wrong... but repeats them anyway
It must almost be summer because the first SHARK! has been spotted on the front of a UK newspaper.
The shark in question is a porbeagle which apparently poses no threat to humans, not least because it tends to live miles out at sea. This one was apparently caught about four miles off the Cornish coast, according to the Telegraph.
Shark scare stories have been arriving in UK newspapers earlier and earlier in recent years, from their traditional slot at the height of the August silly season. The normal ploy is to try to claim the shark in question is a Great White, or at least lead us to believe it might be. The articles are invariably padded out with library photos of Great Whites taken thousands of miles away.
Back in 2013 The People claimed it had "proof" of a Great White in UK waters, despite the protestations of a host of experts, and last year the media went "SHARK!" mad for a Great White that made it as far as the mid-Atlantic ridge before turning around a thousand miles from the UK.
The controversy surrounding FIFA’s decision to award the 2022 World Cup to Qatar has taken its latest sinister twist with news the Qatari authorities arrested and imprisoned a team of BBC reporters who were investigating the bleak conditions reportedly suffered by migrant workers building stadiums and infrastructure for the tournament.
A full report of the BBC team’s ordeal can be read here, where they note:
"The working and housing conditions of migrant workers constructing new buildings in Qatar ahead of the World Cup have been heavily criticised and we wanted to see them for ourselves."
And this was not some undercover investigation. The BBC team was actually in Qatar on the invitation of the government and its London-based PR agency, explicitly to cover the living conditions of migrant workers. It’s no wonder the BBC’s Mark Lobel expressed some shock at "being thrown into prison for doing our jobs".
As self-inflicted PR disasters go, arresting journalists for reporting the story you invited them to report must be right up there.
Of course the BBC was expected to only interview people and film locations included on the official government-approved press tour, some of which apparently feature "spacious and comfortable villas for construction workers, with swimming pools, gyms and welfare officers". It seems the BBC team was punished for going 'off piste' and looking for balance outside the agenda of the press trip.
A statement attributed to the head of Qatar’s government communications office stated:
"The problems that the BBC reporter and his crew experienced could have been avoided if they had chosen to join the other journalists on the press tour."
Translation: How dare these journalists not be satisfied with the version of the truth we had carefully crafted for the purpose of this press tour.