Sunday, May 18, 2008

Merlin's wizardry? Burma and the new journalism
I've just watched the most extraordinary edition of the Ten O'Clock News tonight for two reasons. First of a 20 minute bulletin 7 minutes was given over to both Burma and China; this, so many days on is a significant percentage of a bulletin; agencies have worked hard to keep both in the news. Both stories defy the usual rules of disaster reporting; for a domestic audience like the UK these are faraway countries (although there is a significant Chinese diaspora here, and a historical legacy with Burma). Even so, for a third of a bulletin to be devoted to disasters that happened more than a week ago is unusual.
Second one or other of them should be in the news; not both. Jonathan Benthall in Disasters, Relief and the Media quoted a French newscaster as calling it the "funnel" effect - that emotion can only be channeled one way at one time. I call it the Mother Teresa Death syndrome; the nun who toiled in Calcutta could have expected huge swathes of news print dedicated to her achievements; nstead because she died on the eve of Diana Princess of Wales's funeral, the queen of nuns was elbowed out by the queen of hearts.
However, both have survived. Part is luck: there are no other running foreign stories. Part is the interesting problems both throw up: the debate over whether Burma should be forced to accept aid on one side versus China's 'openness' compared to previous occasions. Part is hard work by the aid agencies to ensure the story stays in the public domain.
In the meantime the most vivid exposition of this is the lead story on the Ten tonight; using pictures from Labutta shot by the aid agency Merlin to give an idea of the devastation in the delta. This is the original  2'47 package from Jonathan Pearce of Merlin from which these pictures are taken is there.  
I have written in the past about the blurring of lines between aid agencies and journalists and chaired a debate about this at the Red Cross's Dispatches from Disaster Zones. Let me begin by saying that the BBC in this case flagged up in the cue these were Merlin's pictures, astoned them and then in the script reiterated the fact these were aid agencies pictures. No one can fault them there.
What was interesting was that the majority of the package (I'll have to watch it again to get timings) narrated by the BBC's Andrew Harding was Merlin's pictures with what appeared to be a piece to camera by Jonathan Pearce (again clearly astoned) which I haven't seen before. Again I would have to check but in the original package Pearce is in an edit suite, whereas in the BBC package they use shots of him in the field. There is also an interview with Dr Sean Keogh (I presume by Pearce) in the Ten package. There was also what appeared to be  shots of Mark Malloch Brown; whether that was Reuters/agency pix or also done by Merlin (I'm presuming the former, as that was not astoned; the words appear to be from the Andrew Marr interview)
I'd like to watch it again before coming to firm conclusions - as I say given the hard time I've given broadcasters in the past for not labelling footage correctly, the BBC could hardly have mentioned Merlin more. (I'm not sure where Harding was, but scripting to news agency pictures is common practice) But it's interesting to see how an aid agency can make the lead item of the Ten and the quality of broadcast filming they are now producing. Technology is finally meaning that aid agencies have the ability to do what they have wanted to do for some times.


John Kelly said...

"His grieving family watch him die." And we watch the grieving family.

Fascinating. I don't know how I feel about the "Merlin" t-shirt. It makes him look a little like a Formula 1 driver covered in adverts. But I suppose it underscores who he works for--and that he doesn't work for the BBC. The quality really is good, though, isn't it?

Glenda Cooper said...

Yes I want to watch it in greater detail today/tonight as to content...but what is extraordinary is the quality. When I did my original research a lot of broadcasters said they didnt use aid agency footage not for ethical reasons but because it wasn't good enough...there's been real investment since then.

As for the T-shirt, aid agencies LOVE to wear them, having been burned by not getting the name checks in the past. The result is you see broadcasters sometimes cropping shots at odd angles so as not to get the logo in - which I think aid agencies should think about. I do know of one instance as well when the BBC refused some great post disaster pix of children because they had all been dressed up in [name removed]'s T-shirts.

I was very unsettled by the footage actually in the China package on the Ten that followed that showed a man trapped under rubble given a phone by a TV reporter (not a BBC one) to make a last phone call...which I thought was a wrong decision to show.