Sunday, 21 February 2010

BBC News – Body language

This began for me as a strange tic, something I noticed occasionally and that was all, but in the last six months it has become a real irritant. I’m talking about the weird body-behavior of BBC TV news presenters.

I think it may have started with the idea that the presenter should stand up to read the opening headlines to the ten o’clock news. Presumably it was felt this would be more commanding, would give authority to the bulletin

Next came the animation phase, starting with a gentle wave of the script during the standing period, a sort of faux emphasis. Fiona Bruce was an early advocate of this.

We then had the hold a pen and look business-like phase, which in the age of the keyboard-and-mouse era always struck me as odd.

Another one was the look down at the papers glance - done so quickly they can’t possibly find the word they are ‘looking’ for. It also seems to make them look strangely shifty.

Animated hands came back into play when questions were being asked of an interviewee, or when they ‘…go live to Nick Robinson in Downing St…’ where we want to emphasise the rigour of our (scripted) questions to Nick.

There is also the script shuffle. I always look hard at this: I’m not convinced there is anything written on those papers.If there is then, I do hope that on the day the autocue fails Huw Edwards doesn’t try to find his place on the written page. It will have been shuffled into oblivion.

But most puzzling, frankly ridiculous, of all is the strange sit with one arm extended and hand just about as far away as you can get it pose. Huw Edwards is the master of this, but George Alagiah is also up for it too.

If these tics were confined to just one or two presenters then I’d accept them as just that: individual traits. But now they are all at it, it must be a new policy.

I’m afraid it has all the hallmarks of having been dreamt up on an Away Day, where the team got the feedback from some focus groups. The team must have been given an objective: How can we distinguish ourselves from news on Sky/ITV/Four/Five/CNN…..?

First, we must get a budget, oh and some expensive consultants. Brainstorm some ideas, analyse what other networks are doing, look at US news, develop some proposals, write a style guide. Then perhaps we could make a video showing it in play, take it up the management chain for approval and sign-off. And now it’s being rolled-out across all the tv news presenters. Doubtless the whole exercise will have been given a catchy project name, and possibly its own logo. And then the trainers will have been brought in, to tutor and rehearse everybody who might ever appear in front of a news camera.

Some presenters seem to find it easy. Others look so uncomfortable you can almost see them think “…two, three, four...arm out…..five, six, seven eight, glance at the paper”. Do they have prompts on the autocue reminding them to do it? Poor Sophie Raworth looks quite uncomfortable.

I had originally thought this nonsense was limited to just the studio newsreaders but recently have seen it from those reporting out in the field. These people aren’t waving their hands around naturally. If you were to look at footage of these same reporters a couple of years ago they were standing still, talking to camera.

I suspect there are some refuseniks, the real veterans of tv news, who think it’s all nonsense and aren’t inclined to play. John Simpson, Gavin Hewitt, Jeremy Bowen come to mind. The Newsnight team of Paxman, Gavin Esler, Emily Maitlis also appear to be avoiding it entirely; they continue with whatever comes naturally.

So, seriously, how can tv news distinguish itself and appear distinctive? Well how about strong and well written journalism, with complete emphasis on the story? How is it that C4 News is held in such high regard, yet produced on such relatively low budget, has real personality, holds authority to account, without resorting to this sort of childish posing and other nonsense. John Snow simply tells it straight, without reliance on false moves and gestures. His programme certainly has authority.

For me, it’s silly, it insults the viewers – suggesting we are somehow more engaged with the news when presented like this – and it demeans the journalists. Just let them be themselves. However, if the BBC really insists we have to have this, then please engage some actors: they are used to reading scripts, will be much more convincing with all these ‘moves’ – and would be much, much cheaper.

Of course you can ignore all this and choose to get your diet of news from dear old steam radio: no need to worry about body-behavior there.


  1. OMG I actually started laughing on my own reading your blog. And what is with the cheap pens that they all hold? We all know they are paid enough to buy a posh expensive pen!

    1. I think George Alagiah has the most expensive pen out of the lot with his Lamy ballpoint!