BBC’s "PM" news magazine under fire

Listening to “Points of View” on BBC Radio 4 today, I was interested to hear that the BBC had received complaints that its “PM” programme is “dumbing down”. Admittedly the complainants, being good Radio 4 listeners, (a club of which I count myself a member) didn’t stoop to the over-used dumbing-down cliché. They were more specific. The programme, they said, seemed to be straying from its mission statement; sorry, from its purpose. The programme was “becoming light entertainment”.

“Coverage and analysis of the day’s news” is the one-line definition of “PM”; this on the BBC’s website, no less. But these correspondents / complainants were objecting to recent trivialising and unnecessarily jokey initiatives: for example sexing up the programme’s weather bulletins by adding sound-effects; and, crucially, asking listeners for ideas on how to make those same weather bulletins more memorable. In general, the charge was that the BBC was becoming more interested in what “PM’s” listeners and bloggers had to say about stories than the views of their own journalists. Didn’t the BBC have enough expert journalists to cover the stories?

I was pleased to hear this: I had noticed these trends myself and found them irritating at best, so it was good to know I was not alone. But insult was added to injury when “Points of View” wheeled out the producer of “PM” to answer the charges. Her defence, IMHO, did not really take the complaints seriously; in fact I detected a whiff of complacency. She insisted that by canvassing and broadcasting listeners’ opinions, they were expanding the range of expertise they could call on. My view on that is that yes, some of the listeners may well be expert on some topics, but by no means all of them. Who should moderate the inputs to decide which are grounded in sufficient competence to be broadcast? A BBC journalist specialising in the topic, perhaps? Then let’s hear the journalist’s views instead.

As for the memorability of weather bulletins: leaving aside the question of whether the weather (sorry!) needs to be given such prominence in a news programme (when the BBC already has plenty of dedicated weather bulletins elsewhere) the producer’s defence of the puerile stunts that had been tried, was centred on the fact that this topic had promoted lots of e-mails. My own view anyway is that the necessarily brief weather bulletins in this kind of programme are so general as to be useless in a country that’s famous for local variations. They can’t even tell us what the weather is doing now, never mind what will happen in the future: it’s bizarre to hear a presenter say, “today, it will be dry everywhere” while outside my window the rain is pouring down.

The final complaint levelled was that incidental music was creeping into what was previously an all-speech programme in a virtually all-speech channel. The offender was the introductory music to the stock exchange report “Up-shares down-shares”. A listener who was unemployed thought that the introduction of music and in fact the overall style of the piece was inappropriately jokey when talking of such serious matters as the state of the economy, especially when most of such news is uniformly bad these days. This criticism was quickly brushed off by the producer on the grounds, as far as I could tell, that they had had an e-mail (maybe more than one but I didn’t hear it) from a listener who loved the music. Why should that apparently random listener’s views matter more than those of the listener who’d lost his job and was offended by the trivialisation?

Written in sorrow more than anger, by a devotee of Radio 4.