Once I had read the wonderful Clive James’ article on the prevalence of the words “absolutely” and “phenomenal” in BBC Olympics coverage, it because apparent to me that they were both used by a vast range of correspondents an absolutely phenomenal number of times! The Olympics revealed much about modern London, and about modern Britain – and also about the modern BBC. It is a mixed scorecard – but one which provides evidence we should be very thankful for a quality independent broadcaster.
Firstly, on the language point, even Mr James implicitly accepts that a larger number of commentators and interviewers inevitably means a decline in the average level of language skill. Words such as “absolutely” and “phenomenal” did become somewhat en vogue, but at no great cost. Of course, our own Colin Murray’s plain incorrect use of “have went” did become excruciating within minutes, even to a language liberal…
Secondly, some questions were raised, including apparently internally, on the BBC’s bias towards home athletes – indeed, it was alleged that this amounted to straightforward jingoism. I personally found this, if anything, less the case than it had been in the past (I had taken to watching major athletics championships on Eurosport rather than BBC in order to find out who actually won as opposed to who gallantly came seventh), if only because covering the British athlete and covering the winner coincided more often than it usually does! In my own experience it was in fact ITV Daybreak which went overboard with an appalling line of questioning to foreign journalists on the final Friday morning to the extent that they may as well have asked the poor Frenchwoman “Don’t you agree this Olympics was the best ever and it was specifically because we beat you to host it?”
Thirdly, questions were also raised specifically about BBC NI’s coverage of local competitors. There should be no doubt that it was entirely legitimate – and indeed specifically helpful – for BBC NI to cover competitors from NI who happened to be competing for the Irish team; it was perhaps less legitimate for this to extend on occasions to covering other Irish competitors, to the extent of appearing to favour one to win against a British opponent in one of the boxing finals (I think this was a desperate attempt at justifying coverage of the Olympics on local news upon the elimination of all NI competitors rather than anything “political” – but this in some way only makes it worse, for there was plenty of other news to cover locally). In a time of cutbacks elsewhere, I am not sure why we needed two correspondents of our own, although they were probably better in London than South Carolina. Yet as far as I am aware, some really interesting pieces of genuinely local interest were missed – was it mentioned that the wonderful showjumping barriers were assembled by people from Northern Ireland, for example?
Fourthly, questions were raised about the BBC’s decision to place its newsreaders within Olympic Park. Here, I agree entirely. I am a mammoth sports fan. But the last thing I wanted to do upon watching the news was to re-watch what I had just watched on the sports coverage. I could watch as many re-runs as I wanted via red buttons, internet links and highlights shows (the latter meant this was the case even when I was restricted to analogue TV for nearly a week), I did not need them repeated on the news as well. It was as if nothing else happened in the world while all 7 billion of us apparently became enamoured with “Jess Ennis” (see below). I suggest that is unlikely!
Fifthly, there was some comment on the level of familiarity shown towards British competitors, from openly hugging them through to naming the outstanding star of the British track-and-field team “Jess” rather than “Jessica”. I must say I was relatively untroubled by this most of the time – part of the point of the whole thing was the emotional outpouring of a country proud to have hosted the games so well and competed so well within them. Nevertheless, I do wonder if the formality pendulum has not by now swung too far; it was as if the BBC correspondents were claiming a share in a success which, to be clear, had nothing whatsoever to do with them.
Finally, I was surprised at the number of careless errors which crept into the coverage, particularly on the radio where accuracy is all-important. Leads were assigned to the wrong person; “hours” were referred to as “minutes”; periods without a gold medal were referred to as periods without a medal. My own view is that there is a clear distinction between radio and TV broadcasting and a different set of skills required – it is not always appropriate to shift presenters directly from one to the other.
For all of that, the the Olympics amounted to a return to form for the BBC after a difficult summer. It is worth noting the true scandal of Olympics broadcasting was the failure of NBC to show the 100 metres men’s final live in the United States. That was an outrageous example of commercialism gone completely barking, with public interest scurrilously tossed out of the window. This should tell us one thing which should stand out above all: there was good and bad about the BBC coverage, but long may we be thankful for it.