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August 24, 2009

Is the BBC’s news a role model to be followed?

Filed under: Blogroll, ethical space editors blog, Headlines, media policy, journalism — news_editor @ 1:45 pm

Gitte Meyer and Anker Brink Lund


Every year in week 46 Danish media researchers monitor Danish media, collecting, analysing and reporting on data from newspapers, journals and broadcasts. This has been going on since 1999, funded by the Danish Research Council and the media providers themselves. As a rule, the focus of the project is specifically on the Danish media.

In 2008, however, a small-scale comparison of Public Service Broadcasting (PSB) in Britain, Denmark, Germany and Sweden was linked to the project. The comparison only included the main newscast of the leading PSB channel in each country - BBC1 in Britain, DR1 in Denmark, ARD in Germany and SVT1 in Sweden - from Monday to Friday. This is clearly inadequate to draw any general conclusions, but some of the observations were sufficiently striking to allow them to be used as the starting point for further enquiry.


The first, most obvious overall impression from watching the 20 newscasts was their national bias: apart from the broad issue of the financial and economic crisis, not one single item appeared the same day at all four channels. Four distinctly different national worlds were depicted. Thus, it appeared to be a shared feature of the newscasts that they were addressing specifically either British, Danish, German or Swedish citizens. At a closer look, however - focusing on ‘foreign news’ or ‘international affairs’ - the four different worlds appeared to have different horizons.

During the five days references were made to around 20 foreign countries in ARD, DR1 and SVT1, and to 15 in the BBC. The financial and economic crisis was very much on the agenda during this week in all four channels. This was clearly an international topic that could not be ignored. When crisis items were excluded, the BBC’s references to other countries went down from 15 to 8, while the DR1 and SVT1 references were only slightly affected (down by 3 and 1 respectively), while the ARD countings were not affected at all. When we excluded items that were either focused on domestic issues or promoted the achievements of fellow countrymen in other parts of the world, we ended up with references to 17 other countries in the German ARD, 16 in the Swedish SVT1, 11 in the Danish DR1 and 4 in the British BBC.

Research results such as these should, of course, be supplemented by systematic research - but we do believe that it would be difficult to identify a method of counting that would not lead to the conclusion that in this particular week of 2008 the BBC presented a far less cosmopolitan outlook, with significantly fewer appeals to trans-national citizens, than the ARD at the other end of the scale.

The international items in the BBC’s coverage were: Austria: the Fritzl-case; Congo: war and suffering; Iraq: the effects of war on historical treasures; USA: fires in California; USA: same sex marriages in California. (References were also made to Afghanistan, but they referred specifically to the death of British soldiers and to British policies. The latter applied also to references to China and Tibet.)

The international items in the ARD were : Africa: refugees arriving in Italy and Spain; Austria: the Fritzl-case; Britain: Prince Charles will be 60; celebrations on the day; China: earth quake; Tibet; Congo: war and suffering; new offensive; Cuba: hurricane; Italy: police officers on trial; Palestine: Israelis use video cameras to protest against warfare; Russia: EU summit: the role of Putin; Spain: digging after victims from the civil war; the USA: Obama and Bush; action artists falsifying New York Times. International, but not country specific: remembering the First World War; Miriam Makeba dies; UN statistics on population growth and analfabetism; interconnections between political systems and the world of finance; diabetes: American study raises doubt about received wisdom.

The First World War was also commemorated by the BBC, but clearly as a domestic issue.

The ARD item on the ceremonies was accompanied by the remark that they took place ‘regardless of the nationality of the victims’. The BBC item on the same ceremonies was accompanied by the remark that ‘one million British lives were lost’. The SVT1 item on the ceremonies was accompanied by the comment that ‘20 million lives were lost’. DR1 did not report the ceremonies.

Discussion and invitation

Internationalism is a feature which is normally taken to be characteristic of PSB as compared to commercial broadcasts. Our observations - although small-scale and too impressionistic to serve as scientific evidence - seem to indicate that marked differences in the coverage of international news may be identified between PSB channels, too. Given the international status of the BBC as a PSB model, the observations are surprising and may be seen as a cause for concern and further enquiry.

The BBC has served as a PSB model for decades, and a stocktaking exercise might be useful in any case. One possible approach would be to enquire among European journalists about the status of the BBC: to what extent is it considered a PSB model and on what criteria? Those criteria might then serve as a starting point for a larger-scale, European PSB comparison,

We would like to get in touch with colleagues who would be interested in cooperating on this research and/or who have made observations similar or contrary to our observations. The long-term aim should be to build a trans-European research group applying for funds to do comparative research into this fascinating and important field.

1 Comment »

  1. why not leave some contact details?

    quite agree BBC’s international TV news coverage is inadequate…

    Comment by rb — August 25, 2009 @ 4:53 pm

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