Being on television (locked)

A lot of you were surprised to see me on the news last night – apparently the BBC Ten O’Clock bulletin featured a clip of me, though I also had sightings from Belgium on the main programme Terzake, Slovakia and even Australia. I suspect it was this euronews story filmed by AP, and then sold as a decent talking-head clip to many other broadcasters.

This is how it happened. My office is right next to Associated Press’s office in Brussels. Normally this has the practical effect that we get access to the kitchen at the end of the corridor, which is technically part of their lease, and occasionally they are receptive to taking stories from us. The AP office has diminished sadly in my time in the building, and though I am never quite sure how many people work there it’s certainly fewer than it used to be.

Bishr Al Touni, one of their journalists, popped into my office on Tuesday to say that there was a Dutch court case about Srebrenica coming to judgement Wednesday morning. Did I feel I could say a couple of words about it? We obviously didn’t know the verdict now, but they wanted to get a reaction from me as soon as the verdict was out. I had a fairly clear calendar for Wednesday morning – just a lunch engagement which as it turned out didn’t even happen – so I agreed.

Ten years ago, in my previous job, I would in fact have been the automatic choice for anyone in Brussels wanting to film a quick talking head about Bosnia. My job then was much more one of being a public intellectual and commentator than it is now, and my work had a Bosnia focus which it now lacks. However, my former employers have abandoned Bosnia in some confusion, and there’s almost nobody left in Brussels in a position to say anything about the place; the receding tide of interest has left me exposed after some time of being safely under the surface.

Anyway, AP came across the corridor just after the verdict was announced, filmed me apparently working (actually writing an email to Anne) and then asked me to turn to camera to give an off-the-cuff reaction, where I don’t think I did more than state the bleeding obvious. The final piece is a pretty standard news story – film of the event, archive film of the event to which it refers, cut to expert commentary who is in a sense the voice of the informed viewer, saying the thing that people will mutter over coffee or in the pub. I knew my role and I played it, shook hands with Bishr and his colleague Sylvain, and got on with work. (Which then consumed me for the rest of the day.)

I spotted the piece on EuroNews mid-afternoon and linked it from facebook and Twitter, and just at that point a visitor arrived in the office and stayed until hometime; when I got home I was feeling queasy from lunch and went straight to bed after dinner without checking the internets. (Feeling better now.) So I woke up to find numerous messages on Facebook about it – apeards to have ben the first to spot me, in Australia as far as I know, and then the BBC used the clip for their late bulletin. Here I am in Slovak. I do occasional TV stuff, most notably for BBC Northern Ireland around election time, but this piece has been unusually widespread.

Well done to AP for putting together a marketable package so swiftly after the verdict came out. Presumably, EuroNews, BBC, ABC, Terzake, TA3 and all the others will have paid them a significant chunk for the piece. (I haven’t seen a penny of it, and I don’t really expect to.) It’s a bit shameful that the BBC didn’t have their own talking head available; I can think of at least five people in London who I would defer to on this subject.

But bear this in mind when you are watching news items like this: the talking head chappie (or chappess), who looks like the reasonable person in a confusing story, may simply have been roped in from across the corridor at the last moment. Broadcast media, for a piece like that, are much more interested in getting a piece that looks good and makes an impression on the viewer than they are in the content. It’s always worth questioning why we are being show this particular image or person or soundbite; news doesn’t just happen, it is constructed by journalists.

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