How BBC News Lost the Plot in Asia; MEDIA Next to Sky and ITV, the Beeb's Coverage of the Tsunami Has Been a Catalogue of Blunders

Article excerpt

Byline: NICK FERRARI

THE Asian tsunami's place in the history books is guaranteed as grim statistic is piled on grim statistic, whether it be the amount of lives lost, money raised or scale of the relief mission. It will also be remembered as the ultimate proof that we do now live in the "global village" we've heard so much about. Countries such as Thailand, Sri Lanka and Indonesia are no longer remote destinations with as much relevance to most of us as a trip to the Moon; we holiday, honeymoon and backpack there with ease.

The "parish pump" of this global village is television: an information tap we can turn on to provide us with reports, reactions and coverage whenever we want.

So let's add another note of media historical importance concerning the events and aftermath of Boxing Day 2004; this was the disaster that confirmed in the world of 24-hour news coverage that there's scarcely a cigarette paper's width of difference between the professionalism and scale of coverage provided by Sky News and ITV News; but when it comes to the BBC you're left questioning the very existence of News 24 and the corporation's commitment to news broadcasting.

Sky News has offered superb coverage, but that is now what we've come to expect. They brilliantly met viewer expectation, which is extremely high.

Jeremy Thompson led a team of anchorsonlocation reports with his usual mix of resolve and relevance, and outshone his rivals at the corporation. Sky's ability to move seamlessly from live shot to live shot without crossing clunkily back to the London studio was sheer professionalism.

But the story for terrestrial viewers has been how ITV News comprehensively stripped the BBC of its once muchvaunted role as the nation's purveyor of news. The seeds sown in ITV's coverage of the Beslan school massacre last year have clearly blossomed.

Meanwhile, the catalogue of BBC blunders is long and bewildering. Who failed to spot the unforgivable insensitivity of allowing the Changing Rooms Goes to Boscastle special to be transmitted directly after the Six O'Clock News on BBC1 a full TWO days after the tragedy, when the scale of disaster was clearly evident? Watching Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen sauntering around the flood damage of Cornwall at the same time as they were counting the dead in Asia in their tens of thousands was grotesque.

Why, at the time of writing, are none of the BBC's primetime news anchors on location? What is the point of News 24 if you don't put it on the network at times like this? Why pay a licence fee for the BBC if it can't respond as a supposed state broadcaster? How did it take the BBC four nights to put out a news special and allow itself to be soundly trounced by ITV News, who went the night before?

And don't buy the argument that viewers could be turned off. At ITV yesterday, executives were marking an impressive set of viewing statistics for their two network news specials. The first, transmitted on Wednesday, attracted more than five million viewers, around one million more than the BBC's effort the following night.

And the second, presented live from Thailand by Mark Austin, underscoring the importance of getting your anchor presenters to the scene as quickly as possible, was watched by 6.5 million viewers, a mammoth 31 per cent share of the audience at that time. Amazingly, that meant more people watched it than the first half of Emmerdale that immediately followed.

Meanwhile, BBC1 effectively hoisted the white flag of surrender to ITV with the Happy Birthday Peter Pan special scoring just 2.4 million viewers. Proof, if it were needed, that when it comes to the world of news, the BBC is away with the fairies.

...and which small paper did the big story best

IN NEWSPAPERS, the tsunami marked a major skirmish in the Battle of the Compacts, between The Times and The Independent as they slugged it out over coverage of the biggest disaster either has faced in its new format. …