R4 ‘Today’ editor: listener numbers down because BBC couldn’t ‘report on the ground’ in Gaza

A recent report in the Guardian reveals that the editor of BBC Radio 4’s flagship news and current affairs programme ‘Today’ thinks that its coverage of the recent conflict in Israel and the Gaza Strip has contributed to reduced numbers of listeners.Today 3 7

“Jamie Angus said some listeners had stopped tuning in to Today and had told him they could not take any more of “this terrible thing that I can’t influence”. This follows a period when the news has been dominated by the escalating civil war in Ukraine, with the threat of Russia and Nato being drawn into a wider conflict, the Israeli assault on Gaza, and most recently the rise of Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.” […]

“Today had a weekly reach of 6.7 million listeners in the second quarter of this year, the last period for which figures are available, down from a high of more than 7 million in the previous three months.”

Notably, Jamie Angus attributes the drop in numbers of listeners to a non-existent factor.

“The difficulty in getting BBC journalists in to the conflict zones, he added, resulted in “a lot of argumentative phone interviews with angry people on either side”, which also proved a turn off.” […]

“He added: “One of the big challenges for us, if we can’t report on the ground which we couldn’t very easily in Gaza because the BBC only had two correspondents there, you end up doing a lot of argumentative phone interviews with angry people on either side and generally that’s an unrewarding listen and audiences will switch off after too much of it.” ” [emphasis added]

However, just days before the conflict commenced, the BBC’s Andrew Roy told BBC World Service listeners that:

“…the BBC’s one of the few organisations that has permanent offices in Gaza, in Ramallah, in Jerusalem, so we are better placed than many to make sure that we report both sides of the story.” 

Indeed, the BBC does have an office in Gaza City and in addition to that, between July 8th and August 26th BBC journalists reporting from the Gaza Strip included Yolande Knell, Jeremy Bowen, Lyse Doucet, Paul Adams, James Reynolds, Ian Pannell, Martin Patience, Quentin Somerville, Jon Donnison, Chris Morris, Orla Guerin and Kevin Connolly. For most of that period there were typically at least three BBC foreign correspondents in the Gaza Strip, together with their support crews and along with the permanent local staff.

The sheer volume of reporting produced by BBC staff during those seven weeks clearly undermines the claim that the corporation could not easily “report from the ground”, as does the well-known fact that the Gaza Strip is – as indicated by the arrival of some 700 international journalists this last summer – one of the easier places from which to report.  

Revealingly, the issue with which Mr Angus appears to be less concerned is the content and quality of BBC reporting from the scene rather than its mere amount. Had the BBC adopted an editorial policy which ventured beyond repetitive, homogeneous, context-free ‘disaster zone’ style depictions of casualties and damage and instead actually lived up to its existing commitment to provide audiences with factual and impartial background information on issues such as the reasons for the conflict and its development, listeners might well have felt that they were being informed rather than herded towards a specific view and hence shown more interest in what the BBC had to offer. But in fact, during seven weeks of coverage, audiences were fed little which deviated from repeated emotive, context-free ‘reporter in the rubble’ reports and politically motivated campaigning items.

Unsurprisingly, Angus’ statistics suggest that BBC audiences may expect higher quality fact-based content from a programme purporting to deal in news and current affairs. 

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