Monday, July 21, 2014

It's like 1989 all over again

When Sky TV launched in 1989, the Murdoch organisation I was then a part of went out of its way to ensure that the Sky News channel was the polished jewel in its otherwise ramshackle crown.

This was helped, in part, by its mass recruitment of producers, journalists and presenters from across the broadcasting spectrum, hiring in talents from the BBC, TV-am as well as various outposts of Rupert Murdoch's media empire.

In 1989, Sky was then a wholly-owned venture of News Corporation, prior to its later merger with BSB, and as such endured plenty of media sniffiness from the non-Murdoch press. This was either on proprietorial grounds - the owners of the Express, Mirror and Mail simply didn't like their rival - or for ideological reasons - Murdoch supported Margaret Thatcher and, two years to the day before Sky launched, a strike at Wapping involving workers of Murdoch's News International newspapers had collapsed amid rioting and the sacking of 6,000 people.

Thus, media snobs revelled in branding Sky News as 'The Sun on TV', Britain's first foray into cheap tabloid television, a tough charge for a nation still wedded to the Reithian vision of public service broadcasting. To its credit, and even when broadcasting from a converted warehouse in a muddy site under the Heathrow flight path, Sky News held its own.

Even before it launched, while still conducting test transmissions, Sky News demonstrated the quality of its proposition by covering the Lockerbie bombing, with scenes eerily prescient of those we've seen in recent days from eastern Ukraine.

In its infancy, and with limited financial resources and the tiniest of audiences, Sky News managed to cover events of global gravity - Nelson Mandela's release from Robben Island, the first Gulf War, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the demise of Communism in Europe, and the conflict in the former Yugoslavia, which it covered with justifiable award-winning aplomb. Over time, Sky News even won over all but the most entrenched anti-Murdoch critics. It is done so by hard work and being hard nosed about it. Even for a community such as the cliquey British media (where everybody pretty much knows everyone at every other rival organisation), it won over respect.

That wasn't evident in the early days: in 1990 Channel 4 launched the brilliant Drop The Dead Donkey, a thinly-veiled parody of a brash, upstart news organisation with a pushy proprietor and the typical kind of cynical and, at times, juvenile black humour that is a part of any newsroom. There were very strong suspicions that GlobeLink News was really Sky News.

Those suspicions grew when those of us working for Sky at the time noticed the GlobeLink newsroom's deskphones and drinks dispenser were identical to those we had at Osterley. Even an episode when a drunken argument broke out between rival news teams at an awards dinner seemed spookily close to a similar episode that happened between a Sky table and a rival's at a ceremony at a Mayfair hotel.

Thankfully, though, Sky has never been encumbered by the lawsuit-waiting-to-happen that was GlobeLink's 'daring' field reporter, Damien Day. Day took editorial ethics to their extremes (such as retaking a South American military execution because the firing squad commander smiled at the camera during the first take, or lobbing a hand grenade over a wall to fake a scene of terror in an otherwise placid village during a third world civil war.

Fast-forward 24 years. Sky News reporter Colin Brazier is reporting live from the crash site of Flight MH17 in Donetsk region of Ukraine, where he is seen picking up a set of keys and a toothbrush from the opened suitcase of one of the Malaysian Airlines plane's victims. "We shouldn't really be doing this, I suppose." At least he was good enough to recognise that part.

Apart from tampering with evidence in what is an international crime scene, Brazier - in an act that beggars belief for an award-winning journalist - was also tampering with the privacy of all 298 who were blown out of the sky last Thursday.

Brazier and Sky have both since apologised profusely, though even Sky's apology smacked of spin, saying that Brazier "...reflected on the human tragedy of the event..." by showing the contents of one of the suitcases.

The statement also said that he "...immediately recognised that this was inappropriate and said so on air. Both Colin and Sky News apologise profusely for any offence caused."

Rather than earn the ridicule of the media community, this moment of madness - coming on top of the moment of madness that brought the airliner down to begin with - has attracted the horror and professional embarrassment from other journalists. Respected media professor Joe Watson even went so far as branding it a "horrible moment for journalism".

It was also totally unnecessary. Most people had already seen some of the ghoulish images of guidebooks and children's toys scattered about the field, not to mention blurred and pixelated images of the charred, shrapnel-lacerated bodies of some of the Boeing's passengers.

Everyone makes mistakes. You wouldn't be human if you didn't. But as any responsible journalist should tell you, the moment you pick up that pen, that laptop or that camera, your margin for error narrows. We certainly didn't need one rifling through the possessions of a dead airline passenger, adding to the ghoulish horror of pro-Russian separatists videoed searching bags and pockets for USB memory sticks and, worse, tales of locals looting cash and credit cards from the dead.

Is that how Sky wanted to associate itself when it dispatched Brazier to Ukraine to cover the story? Is that the standard of oversight it expected of its editors, producers and crew on the ground with him?

Frankly, it has set the reputation of Sky News back 25 years, to a time when it was known amongst  London media circles as "tits at teatime". Well, perhaps it still employs at least one.

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