Is TV’s emotional reporting of events such as the Grenfell fire undermining journalistic detachment, asks Stewart Purvis
Britain suffered a late spring and early summer of terrorist and other man-made tragedies: the attacks at Westminster Bridge, Manchester Arena, London Bridge and Finsbury Park, and the Grenfell Tower fire. There were moments of very raw emotion amid the days of live TV coverage and even during the later, more reflective, reporting.
An eye-witness told the BBC of a victim who had their throat cut by one of the London Bridge attackers. We watched live on ITV as an elderly man gazed helplessly out of his window in a blazing tower block wondering if he would be burned alive.
For the first time I can remember on live television news, a presenter reached out and hugged an interviewee. This was not just a supportive shoulder or arm, but a full wraparound hug by Victoria Derbyshire for Grenfell Tower eyewitness Mahad Egal as he became distressed recalling residents jumping from flats and trying to throw children to safety.
How very different from BBC reporter Ben Brown’s encounter with a tsunami survivor in Indonesia in December 2004, who started to sob on his shoulder: “In my Home Counties, public-school sort of way, I was stiff and uncertain how to respond. My awkward body language seemed to tell her: come on woman, don’t invade my space, pull yourself together. Didn’t she know she was breaking the grammar of television news, where the correspondent – especially the BBC correspondent – can never be seen to ‘cross the line’?” Brown wrote in the Observer in 2005.
Back in December 2004, Facebook hadn’t reached its first birthday and Twitter didn’t exist. Now, millions across the world regularly use these platforms to express their feelings about dramatic news anywhere in the world.
The hashtags #prayforparis and #JeSuisCharlie were watershed moments. Has this phenomenon inspired a new populism in broadcast reporting? Is TV now in an arms race with social media to be seen to care? And, if it is, what are the implications for calm, considered reporting? Certainly, the relationship between TV news and social media has become increasingly symbiotic. Social-media users send in what are often the first pictures of breaking news and send out video clips from news programmes.
Derbyshire’s producers posted her grammar-breaking clip on Facebook, where it has now reached over 11 million people, a very large multiple of those who saw it live on TV.
The online response was mostly positive. “How heartbreaking. Thank you for being so compassionate during this interview. What a credit to the BBC,” said one tweeter. “Nice to know there are some compassionate journalists out there,” said another.
Louisa Compton, editor of the Bafta-winning Victoria Derbyshire show, says: “It’s important to point out that it was Victoria who ended the interview when Mahad got upset. It was her who said: ‘You don’t need to carry on’. It may have felt exploitative to have carried on, which is why we ended it there.”
"Is TV now in an arms race with social media to be seen to care?"
But there were critics online: “If she hadn’t kept pushing him in the first place, he wouldn’t have been sobbing on live TV,” was among the negative tweets. One tweeted that “there’s a very thin line between reporting a tragedy and intruding on it. Which side of that line are you on?”
As a co-author of the book When Reporters Cross the Line, I’m something of a historian of line-crossing and, some might argue, an early practitioner in the black arts of using emotion in TV news.
Twenty years ago, the debate was not just about whether the old media had intruded into a tragedy, but whether it had whipped up bogus sentimentality in response to it.
Conventional wisdom has it that the death of Diana, Princess of Wales marked the moment when the UK loosened its collective stiff upper lip and the British started being comfortable about grieving in public.
On the first day of continuous live coverage after the Paris car crash, as the very first flowers were laid outside Kensington Palace, ITN’s troyal correspondent Nicholas Owen adopted a more personal, more emotional style than viewers were used to. My memory is of initially being uncomfortable about it. But, hesitating before I asked the studio team to tone it down, I checked the feedback from viewers. They were overwhelmingly positive, singling out Nick for special praise.
He had caught the public mood better and earlier than anybody else. The conclusion was clear, viewers wanted to move on from the traditional style of reporting major news events: they wanted to see their feelings reflected more on screen.
Twenty years on, the events of 2017 have taken us to a collective high tide in the reporting of immediate popular sentiment. Given how far we have come, how much further do we want to go?
It is interesting to compare and contrast the reporting of the terrorist attacks with that of the Grenfell Tower fire. On 4 June, the New York Times front page was headlined, “Terrorist attacks in the heart of London leave six dead in a nation still reeling”.
Author Robert Harris tweeted in response: “This sort of hyped-up headline does the terrorists’ job for them. UK isn’t ‘reeling’”. #ThingsThatLeaveBritainReeling trended as tweeters listed what really stirs the British. My own favourite was: “That awkward moment after you say goodbye to someone and walk off in the same direction.” The spirit of the hour was a unified response with touches of the so-called “Blitz spirit”. After the Manchester bombing, the media was full of how local communities had come together.
The Grenfell Tower reaction began in that same spirit, with the reports of donors providing vast quantities of food and replacement household goods.
On that first morning, rightly, there were immediate questions – credit here to Piers Morgan on ITV – about the specifics of the fire precautions. Then, when the local council leader, the hapless Nicholas Paget-Brown, failed to demonstrate the required emotional literacy and his staff couldn’t cope with the enormity of the task, the narrative in some of the broadcast media changed.
It was now a story of how one local community (the rich of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea) had failed another (the poor of North Kensington). Somehow, the authorities were deliberately falsifying the number of people who had died. But the rationale for them doing this was never explained.
Not long before, we had been united; now we were apparently angry with anybody who represented privilege or authority. For my own taste, there were moments when there was too much emotion and not enough cool reporting.
Social media provides limitless capacity for strong and not necessarily considered views. There are no judgements about proportionality, about the need for facts as well as emotions. That is what editors do.
There have been the first warning signs – I put it no higher than this – that some broadcast editors feel they have had to recalibrate their reporting to respond to the impact of social media.
Now, we learn that the evil Royal Borough was just one of more than 50 councils that used the same cladding on their tower blocks. Eventually, I suspect that we will get a verdict from the official inquiry that is less about class war and heartless authorities and more about local government finance and the business culture summarised in astronaut John Glenn’s memory of lift-off: “I felt exactly how you would feel if you were getting ready to launch and knew you were sitting on top of 2 million parts – all built by the lowest bidder on a government contract.”
Stewart Purvis is a former editor-in-chief of ITN and Ofcom regulator. He is a non-executive director of Channel 4 and writes here in a personal capacity.