Switching off international news?

Oxfam is campaigning about the decline in foreign news in publicly funded broadcasting. The report was commissioned by Sam Barratt of Oxfam, Mark Galloway of the International Broadcasting Trust and Charlie Beckett, Director of Polis at the LSE.

Its core argument is about the decline in international coverage on commercial channels (the BBC is in there but emerges with higher marks). “Recent research from IBT shows that international factual coverage on ITV has dropped by 75% in the last five years, with just five hours of such programmes on the developing world shown in 2007, and over the past three years a quarter of coverage of international issues has been moved off mainstream channels to sister digital platforms.”

What this translates into is their concern that there will be less coverage of developing countries and their problems as broadcasters respond to the market. I don’t entirely agree with the report, however. It says that “International coverage is a bit like broccoli. It may not be particularly appetising but it is good for us.”This theme runs through report, and it begs the question: Properly done, it is as exciting and watchable as anything else. Improperly done it is dull and unwatchable and doesn’t deserve airtime. But the report seems to take for granted that this is an area that broadcasters won’t address unless they are made to.

The solutions they propose are interesting, but very process-centred:

1) Each broadcaster to be required to introduce an international strategy.
2) One senior executive to be named responsible for international content.
3) BBC World News to be broadcast into the UK.
4) Expand BBC iPlayer to show more international coverage from other channels .
5) A new system to measure the success of programmes.

I don’t believe the market will neccessarily provide the answer here, but I’m not convinced that these solutions – which involve a degree of central planning – will do so either. Nor can the issues be addressed, it seems to me, in the isolated context of British public service broadcasting commitments. The report is nonetheless an interesting one and merits reading. Some of it is focussed on the relative neglect of Africa and Latin America, an issue for some years that is conceptually separate. Overall, a significant contribution to the debate on public service broadcasting, and a useful addition to the arguments about priorities, audiences and content in international news.

 Download the report here (requires PDF).

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