Author Archives: Teo Beleaga

About Teo Beleaga

Teo Beleaga is a journalism and media student at Coventry University, whose students run the CUToday website.

Could peace journalism offer a future for news media?

Non-violent activism is not reported enough in the media, which focuses on violence in too much of its language and reportage, Richard Keeble, Professor of Journalism at the University of Lincoln, argued yesterday in a Coventry Conversation event at Coventry University entitled “Give Peace Journalism a Chance!”

Peace journalism is solution-orientated. It gives a voice to the voiceless. It’s attempting to humanise the enemy and exposing lies on all sides, highlighting peace initiatives and focusing on the invisible effects of violence, such as psychological trauma,” he said.

Keeble attacked the traditional media, for acting as propaganda for war, rather than a resolution promoter, but stressed the importance of alternative media in promoting peace journalism.

“Part of the critique is the critique of the language of the media and one of the things that always amazes me, is the way in which the metaphor of war is everywhere […] there’s all different kinds of ways in which alternative citizen journalists are challenging the professional monopoly of this word journalism, and I celebrate them enormously.”

Talking about the exposure of war, Keeble said: “It is the responsibility of journalists to expose the truth.”

“You are not being told to be objective,” he added. “There’s no way in which X can be balanced with Y, because what about A, B, C and D and everything else in between? The whole notion of balance is problematic, isn’t it?”

Coventry Conversations: The birth of BBC News Online

BBC News Online was initially devised in 1997 as a response to CNN’s online news page, claims its creator and former Editor-in-Chief, Mike Smartt.

“The reason that the BBC decided to go online was that CNN went online in 1996. And because the BBC doesn’t do anything in a hurry, it took it a very long time to actually make the decision.”

Speaking at the University of Coventry as part of its ‘Coventry Conversations’ series, Smartt told of the early days of online news and the difficulties faced by both designers and journalists.

Online journalism had to wait for technology to permit it to expand to its full potential, he said. Deadlines were demolished and journalists were regularly spending over half an hour to write a code with their story, only to have to go back again when a space, comma or any other character wasn’t in place.

The BBC were very wary of going online at first, Smartt said. “Initially, in the BBC, the journalists rejected the idea for two reasons: the money that was used to finance it was obviously coming from radio and television, so there was some resentment, and the internet was seen, amongst the people in the more traditional media, as competition,” he confessed.

When they did push ahead with the idea, experience was obviously thin on the ground. “My only qualification was that I used one of these” he said, showing a picture of his laptop back in 1997. The initial website was running from a server similar both in size and internal technology to his original laptop, he said. “Actually, for three weeks when we first launched the server, big in theory, … looked like this, that’s what we served News Online from, for three weeks, in the corner of the Newsroom.”

He also spoke of the problem of deciding what a story should look like online, whether going on the internet meant that people were looking for “three Ceefax sentences” or something more in-depth. The BBC’s 1996 ‘Online News Concept’ outlined goals that are beginning to be met only recently: valuable text, high-quality pictures that load fast, high-quality audio, full screen videos and full interactivity.

The content of the first test pages was mostly made up of jokes, but the team, led by Smartt, had to redesign the site again and again until the first BBC News Online page was finally agreed upon. He showed one version of the front page with a lively design and a high number of images, but explained why they couldn’t go with it: “If you remember back then you had dial-up, and you literally rang them up, and then this sound came along, and then you were connected, and only later up came the site, very, very slowly.”

Smartt finished with a warning to those who are not prepared to embrace new forms of journalism: “If you can’t handle multi-media, and you will have to in future, you are doomed in this business.”

Behind the scenes at BBC’s Question Time

For a little over 30 years, BBC panel show Question Time has been at the centre of controversial debate in the UK. But how do they do it? What goes on behind the set week in week out? I got the chance to speak with the programme’s director Rob Hopkin, who gave me an insight into the secret of producing a show like Question Time.

According to the the Question Time website, the heart of the programme is its audience. “We don’t invite anyone” said Hopkin. “We have a dedicated producer who chooses a representative audience that reflects the demographic length. It is an honestly picked audience.” Every week audience producer Alison Fuller has to select the audience and, depending on the city they are in, this can mean considering more than 4,000 applications. This process involves checking the background of every applicant against their political affiliations, campaign involvements, advertising intentions, and many other factors.

As the 150 people she selects are intended to embody the image of their city in the eyes of the programme’s nationwide audience, her job is one of the most important for the programme’s production.

Those selected to appear in the audience are invited to arrive at 6:00pm, but the programme records from 8:30pm to 9.30pm. This gives them over two hours of waiting. So what happens while they wait?

“When the audience turns up we give them tea and biscuits and they go through the whole process, but most importantly of all, we give them pens and paper and little cards for them to write their questions on,” explained Hopkin. “While they are waiting, we show them BBC’s News at Six, the ITV’s 6.30pm News and Channel 4’s 7:00pm news. It is very important that people ask questions about what is in the news that day.”

Hopkin described the question selection process: “Most of the questions are selected on the day. All the pieces of card with the questions are brought to the editorial team and they just separate the good questions from the not so good ones, and they end up with about eight to ten questions. But we won’t have time for that; we might have time for five or six. And often there are questions which are very good but on the same topic, so we might have two questions on the same topic. But we need to have extras, just in case.”

Asked about the origin of the questions, Hopkin stressed that they come from no-one but the audience: “This is the crucial thing because we are always being accused of telling the audience what questions to ask. People think that what we do is take our questions, give them to the audience, and get them to read them out. But that absolutely does not happen.

“Doing that would undermine the whole premise, and what’s the point in that? The programme is absolutely upfront, it does what it says on the package: this is the audience asking questions to the politicians.

“The other thing that we are accused of is that we have told the politicians what the questions are. I can guarantee we do not do that. They sit there and they do not know what the audience is going to ask. […] You can see that, and we are here to expose and to reveal things by getting a slightly more honest response from people.”

This approach gives the programme a journalistic edge, with every member of the editorial team having years of experience behind them. The average age of these “very sharp cookies”, as Hopkin describes them, is in the early 30s.

The production team, roughly 50 strong, is also made up of very experienced staff. “To achieve the right level of technical expertise you have to have the confidence in operating this heavy equipment as quickly as we ask them to,” said Hopkin, “you can’t put fairly young or inexperienced people in; they’ve got to have some years of being in control of things and be prepared to put independent thought into it.”

Although the show is not live, the production team has less than an hour after they finish recording before the show goes on air. This means there is not time for serious editing. All the team can do is crop bits of film here and there, taking into account legal matters and the audience’s emotions when talking to camera.

Hopkin explained: “I’ve had conversations with experienced journalists who have watched Question Time but never seen it in operation, and they say: ‘Well you must do an awful lot of post-production and editing’ and I say: ‘No, it goes out as we record it. We record it and send it, and that’s it.’ They say: ‘But you must do a lot of edits to tighten the sound up’ and I say: ‘No, there’s never high end tie, because the boom mikes have a spotter, who’s watching and saying: ‘That person it’s pointing to, the person up here, that’s green mike’, and green mike says: ‘That’s me’. When David says ‘Gentlemen on the front row of the back…’ he’s already there.

“So the person says ‘Oh yes, I’d like to ask so and so…’ and that way the system works. It’s a technique and a process that’s been honed over 30 years of this programme.”

On the set, a simple count reveals four spotters with boom mikes and eight cameramen. One of these is the steady cam, which needs another member of the team to carry the wires. “Given timing, for my role as the director, I can’t direct and call every shot,” confesses Hopkin. “What happens is that they all know the areas they can cover from where they operate, and they know the kind of shots they can get, and they know the programme so well that when somebody starts to speak they immediately offer the shot. So my job becomes one of saying, ‘That’s lovely. Thank you very much indeed, I’ll take that’ or ‘No, I won’t have that’. It’s more selection than direction. You don’t have to drive this crew, the crew are very safely driving themselves.”

During their two rehearsals they check the mikes and the shots over and over again. They even do a mock question, with the panel and David Dimbleby, right before they start shooting, adding up to a staggering three rehearsals and many more checks. Being a show with little or no script, where people are brought together to argue their views and get their answers, it might seem quite impossible to keep an audience of 150 and a panel of 5 strongly opinionated personalities together, but Hopkin very calmly says: “That’s all David’s work. He’s the chairman and he’s responsible for them.”

The show runs in a different city every week, produced out of the six trucks it travels with, as there’s no Question Time headquarters except for production offices in Oxford, London and Scotland.

I ask Rob if the travelling can get too much, but he shrugs it off:  “Oh I don’t travel for over 30 weeks. You come up and you do the show, and then you go back home.” It’s a busy schedule, but to him it’s just another job: “I have lots of other things to do; this is just a day a week.”

Behind-the-scenes at the Beeb’s multimedia newsroom

BBC newsroom studioCoventry University’s Teo Beleaga gives us a student’s eye view of the BBC’s multimedia newsroom.

The BBC opened its gates on Tuesday night for students and members of the Media Society to come and observe its newsroom at work.

Although centralized into one enormous room and called a multimedia newsdesk, the new BBC newsroom (opened last spring) is still separated into television, online and radio departments. In one corner, less than 10 people are in charge of everything that comes from wire agencies and are the only team dealing with all the platforms at once.

It’s still too early to mix all the platforms into one multimedia department, but as Radio 4 presenter Peter Day, our tour guide, said: “We have a morning meeting where everyone learns what everyone does. We try to deliver the same content.”

The six o’clock news bulletin is ready at least a half-an-hour before broadcast, when the director, Chris Cook, starts the rehearsal of the running order and the studio camera captions. Fifteen minutes after, the presenter puts his newsface on and they start rehearsing the headlines.

They may get it wrong in practice, but when its live, the bulletin unfolds naturally. When watching, an untrained eye couldn’t tell just how much hard work goes on behind the scenes.

Our tour was followed by a debate on the future of news, chaired by Nick Pollard and featuring Mary Hockaday, head of the BBC’s multimedia newsroom; Stephen Cole, Al-Jazeera presenter; Jonathan Levy from Sky News; and Jonathan Munro, head of news at ITN.

“There will be new types of delivering journalism in the future. But in the end it’s about adapting the fundamental to the platforms and not creating the platforms as a fundamental change. The fundamentals are what gets you into journalism in the first place,” said Hockaday.

Commenting on the development of online journalism, journalists need to go back to basics, the panel suggested. Journalists are too polite, said Cole; while Munro said there needs to be a greater distinction between journalism and information.

“What you get on social networks may be information, but that’s not journalism,” he said, adding that the key questions like why and how are still asked by journalists.

The same journalistic checks must be applied to user-generated content and so-called ‘citizen journalism’, the panel said.

According to Levy, ‘99.9 per cent of citizen journalists are not journalists at all’: “They are people who happen to be there and have a mobile phone with them, which takes pictures. They are not citizen journalists they are video witnesses. They’ve got evidence of what’s happening in front of them.”

Teo Beleaga is a journalism and media student at Coventry University, whose students run the CUToday website.