To understand the true meaning of stories in the news, the public needs to hear from genuine voices of authority. But in today's world of fast-moving media, we hear from them less and less. Ex-BBC and ITN newsreader Andrew Harvey looks at why this is happening and calls on true experts to make their voices heard.
- What makes a genuine expert, and how they can contribute to a news story
- Why 24 hour news makes it difficult for their voices to be heard
- How they can step up, assert themselves and get their message across
All Quiet At The Top - Why the voices of authority have fallen silent
The constant, shifting flow of big stories and events is what makes news so fascinating, both to the journalist and the audience. But to get the true picture, we need to hear real voices of authority, instead of relying solely on soundbites and snatched interviews.
The recent hurricanes in the Caribbean spawned dozens of angles on the same story. After the meteorological phenomenon came the rescue effort. That quickly developed into a blame game over the speed of rescue response and the insularity of the US aid effort which, it was claimed, was aimed almost entirely at American victims. Then came the cost, the clear-up, and the comparison with events in Houston just days earlier. And for weeks to come there will be stories of heroism, of communities coming together - and, inevitably, of those exploiting the distress and damage.
Each of these aspects of the hurricane story - the news angles - involve people. Ordinary people have extraordinary stories to tell, and vox pops with survivors help to convey the fear and the personal ordeal.
But for a wider appreciation of the causes and the effects we also need to hear from the experts, those with the knowledge and the experience to make sense of the event and its aftermath. For example, how will businesses pick themselves up after the damage they have suffered? What happens now to tourism in the area? How does the insurance industry sort out the mess? What about hearing from serious meteorologists, instead of TV weathermen and women?
The need for true experts
The words of key players in any event like this add crucially to our understanding. Without that expert input, we are left under-informed. The journalist’s job is to make the complex simple. It’s not easy, but the process of simplification can often leave a sense of incompleteness, a feeling that there is more to the story, that the treatment of the subject has left important areas unexplored.
Journalists, even specialist correspondents, can rarely claim to be true experts in their subject. But they know where to go to for the information they need. What a pity that we don't hear directly from their informants with their voices of authority. The question is, why don't we?
As a former BBC and ITN News Channel broadcaster it pains me to admit it, but the 24-hour news machine is largely to blame. It is too often superficial in dealing with major issues, while in the next moment it can beat a subject to death, simply because there is nothing else around and the hours have to be filled somehow.
The result is that a sense of context is lost and something that merits little more than a couple of paragraphs on an inside page is elevated to major news status. At the same time, to keep the programme moving, items are kept deliberately short and the coverage is scanty at best.
In this type of climate, interviewees frequently fall victim. Politicians speak privately about their dread of the minor slip, the badly-expressed thought that is then chewed over hour after hour. For example, an unfounded claim or unintended disclosure excavated by John Humphrys on the Today programme becomes an item near the top of the World At One running order, only to be explored from a different angle by Eddie Mair on PM, before it is given the final treatment on The World Tonight. Throughout the day, social media will be snapping at the heels of the story...and still to come is the commentary in the next morning’s papers.
Is it any wonder that those whose views would be most valuable simply shrug their shoulders and decide not to get involved?
Experts at the heart of the story
But as they turn away, somebody has to step in to take their place. Very often the space is filled by “the industry expert”. We all know their names and voices. Those who pop up in the aftermath of a disaster like a rail accident or airliner crash and deliver what is often a useful commentary on the event. They have knowledge, they have insight, but they are not at the heart of the story and therefore their words do not carry the weight of a senior rail manager or an airline boss.
Two subjects dominate much of the current news coverage and social media comment - Brexit and the possibility of terrorist attack. Both are so complex that expert voices are urgently needed. Details of the Brexit negotiations will gradually emerge, but other Brexit-related issues are going unanswered. How are the financial services preparing? What about those industries reliant on foreign workers? What would be the result of resorting to WTO rules? One or two leaders have come forward, but we need more voices like Sir James Dyson to put their point of view.
And how enlightening - perhaps comforting, perhaps not - to hear from someone at the heart of the anti-terrorist campaign. While accepting totally the need for some secrecy, there is still much that could be said about so many aspects of the current campaign - the size of the task, the path to radicalisation, the growing importance of CCTV, and so on. The need for secrecy is a valuable excuse, but the appearance of a senior officer on the steps of New Scotland Yard offering the same soundbites about the “ongoing investigation”, the “deployment of officers” and the “need for vigilance” only fuels the public anxiety.
Making their voices heard
It is unlikely that instant news and combat-style interviewing will die away soon, so spokespeople must assert themselves and make their voices heard.
Training and practice can help nurture the confidence to handle the media. That in turn will produce the information and the insight from a spokesperson that ensures a successful interview - and an invitation to return.
Knowledge delivered with confidence and clarity will always be in demand, now more than ever.
Andrew Harvey was one of the main news presenters on BBC TV News, fronting all their daily news programmes. More recently he was senior presenter on the 24-hour ITV news channel. He covered many major events in that period, from 9/11 and the London bombings in 2005, to nine general elections and two Royal funerals. He now runs the media training company HarveyLeach (www.harveyleach.co.uk).