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Media smoke and mirrors

IWA

Phil Parry looks at the relationship between politicians and the media

As the fallout continues over the way the announcement was made for the preferred route of the £1 billion M4 relief road, and revelations that the minister responsible has not done a live broadcast interview for three years, I thought I had better let you into a secret: it’s all fake anyway.

The whole relationship between the media and politicians is an unholy alliance.

Interviews are often given only along agreed lines, TV pictures are manipulated and radio audiences can be just a few people.

Most journalists, with honourable exceptions, know that if they report what the punters really want to hear, they will be frozen out of any dialogue, not given access to key people, made to feel uncomfortable in press conferences, and removed from information lists.

Sports journalism is probably the worst.

This area is dominated by multi-million pound contracts, and being granted access to star players. I was once drafted in to a sports department to work on an investigation, when the officials I had just been making inquiries about, wandered into the Editor’s office next door, to discuss broadcasting rights.

After a politician has been exposed in a misdemeanor, he or she will mysteriously turn the phone off and be uncontactable.

Once the heat has died down and the politician is off the front pages, he or she will emerge to do interviews but only within strict parameters.

The questions must be focused on the information the politician wants to give, not necessarily what the viewer, listener or reader wants to hear. Sometimes the politician will even demand sight of questions beforehand. I always resisted this, partly because I had no idea what I was going to ask. Requests are also made to see the television item, or view the written article before it is published. This, effectively, gives the person a right of veto and is usually refused.

A curious tango is undertaken, once a politician has emerged from hiding, where the journalist will know certain areas are off-limits and should not be asked or the interviewee will walk out, and the politician, meanwhile, can be fairly secure he can impart the information he wants.

I was always getting into trouble for asking questions I was apparently not meant to ask. Official complaints were made to my superiors, legal threats were given, and access to that politician from then on became extremely difficult. In a recent incident where a Welsh government minister was sacked he toured TV studios on the evening of his departure clutching a statement which he said he would read out, but refused to answer any questions.

In any arena of TV journalism, not just in politics, the picture is paramount. Recorded interviews are edited usually, although not always, so that the meaning is not changed.To cover the edits a shot known as a ‘noddy’ is needed. In most cases the interview is filmed using a single camera, and this is turned round afterwards to film an artificial shot of the reporter nodding, which can then be placed over an edit to simulate listening.

Nowadays there is more tendency for interview edits to fade to black, so that the cut is obvious. which is far more transparent. Because filming has become much cheaper now, smaller cameras are sometimes used to film the reporter during the interview itself. The editing shots that are then used from the other camera’s film, are natural nodding to a statement and they look less artificial. News interviews on television have become ever shorter, so now just a ‘clip’ is normally used – sometimes supplied by another reporter – and this does not require any editing.

Back in the day, during a formal, longer, interview filmed for a TV current affairs investigation, a ‘two-shot’ was all-important. A two-shot is when the reporter and subject are in the same frame – usually sat down – during the interview itself. As these were critical for the editing process, the two-shot would often be filmed beforehand, in case the subject became so angry with the questions during the interview he or she walked out making it impossible. I have filmed these editing two-shots beforehand on many occasions.

Viewing, listening or circulation figures are also absolutely critical. Statements about ‘public service’ and a ‘broader remit’ are usually nonsense. It is popularity that counts.

There will, for example, be no more dedicated Panorama reporters on BBC TV now.

415 BBC news jobs are being axed and many, including the veteran reporter John Sweeney, are leaving the corporation.These details were greeted with a cry of anguish from one insider who reportedly said: “It’s an outrage that a frontline, flagship show like Panorama is taking the brunt of the cuts when the BBC is packed to the gills with worthless leeches.”

This does not tell of an organisation where morale is sky-high.

Serious TV current affairs journalism, which is expensive but does not necessarily receive good ratings, is almost certainly now over.

In radio the monthly listening, or RAJAR, figures are endlessly pored over. I once hosted a political debate show on radio called grandly The People’s Assembly, which toured the country going to sports centres or town halls all over Wales. This was transmitted live, or recorded to time ‘as-live’, so that securing an audience was vital, although the numbers were less important, as it was on radio.

I would always be stationed at the entrance to the building, minutes before the debate began, to encourage the audience to attend. Sometimes we would even gather people from the street who thought they were going to something else entirely.

On one famous occasion we shared the building with ‘weight-watchers’. A series of fairly large people would approach and I always excitedly inquired: “People’s assembly debate?”

I would invariably receive the response: “No. Weight-watchers.”

One particularly large person approached and I wearily waved my arm. “Weight-watchers is that way,” I said.

“People’s assembly debate!” I was told angrily. “I’m the local political agent!”

So the moral is – never trust what you see.

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