Your brand can’t save you now

Bleary-eyed and bleary-brained the other morning, I was jolted awake by a trailer on the BBC World Service for a programme on the damage done by US troops to the ancient city of Babylon.

Now, I have to admit that I find that BBC radio is frequently rather tedious. The World Service and Radio 4 both have a tendency to be oh so very worthy, so very full of the earth-shattering (self-)importance common to those who have the kind of tenure most in the media can only dream about. Indeed, the only reason we had the World Service on was because Kevin works for them and it’s his job to grok world news each morning. If it was up to me, we’d listen to the far easier on the brain XFM where the most complex thing I have to do deal with is figuring out to what degree Carl Barat‘s new band, Dirty Pretty Things, is better than Pete Doherty‘s trainwreck combo, Babyshambles. (Answer: very much; number of brain cells exercised: near to nil.)

Back to this trailer. I get really depressed when I think of all those wonderful antiquities destroyed by the stupidity of whomever is currently invading whichever country. I don’t care that it was US troops filling their sandbags with archaeological artefacts, I care that it happened at all. That wasn’t what got up my nose though. It was a phrase along the lines of “The BBC assesses the impact”. As soon as I heard that, I bristled.

The BBC? Assessing the impact of US Troops on the ruins at Babylon? Since when did the BBC employ experts in Babylonian archaeology? Last I looked, the BBC employed journalists, and I have a sneaking suspicion that journalists expert in Babylonian archaeology are few and far between, and unlikely to be on the BBC’s payroll.

This is not to say that this programme is not capable of providing an accurate portrayal and discussion of the problems at Babylon (I have no idea whether it did or not). It is to say that it will not be the BBC doing it, it will be the various doctors, professors, conservationists and researchers – the real experts – who will provide the story, the analysis, the conclusions. All the BBC can do is provide a conduit for the real experts to speak to a wider audience.

Yet the BBC, like so many other mainstream media outlets, seem to have forgotten this. They have slipped into a Cult of Brand, where asserting the primacy of their corporate brand is more important than the story they are reporting. This is an ugly development of the Cult of Personality that I first observed infiltrating music journalism back in the mid-90s.

I am a huge music fan. My life is dull and empty without music, and like many music fans my age, I grew up on the music inkies – the Melody Maker and the NME. Well, it was never an ‘and’, but always an ‘or’. You had to choose. Either/or. I chose the Melody Maker, because I thought that the writing was better. But as the 90s wore on, the writing deteriorated badly, with journalists trying so hard to be the next Nick Kent or Lester Bangs without ever having their talent.

Instead, two-bit hacks spent more time writing about themselves and their experiences than they did writing about the bands they were interviewing. It was a Cult of Personality, manifested too in the music industry itself, where lead singers became more important than their bands, where managers and A&R men became more important than their charges.

The problem with the Cult of Personality was that it was tedious and dull. I wanted to know what my favourite bands were up to, I wanted an insight into their lives, into their music. I didn’t want some talentless teenaged hack with all the experience of a brick – and journalistic chops to match – insinuating that they were the most important thing since sliced bread.

Not that the Cult of Personality was (or is) restricted to the music press, or to the Maker and the NME. Oh no. Kate Adie, anyone?

It is, you could say, a natural development to move from a Cult of Personality to a Cult of Brand, where the arrogance of the entrenched media can blossom forth in all it’s glory. Who needs to worry about rigorous journalistic standards, or those pesky ethic things when you have brand to paper over the cracks?

When the BBC World Service says “the BBC assesses the damage to Babylon” I bristle, because that statement unnecessarily inserts the BBC into the story, and asserts an unwarranted authority over it. By saying that the BBC is going to assess the impact, they make it sound as if the BBC are the only people who could, but in actual fact the story is really about the experts that the BBC has consulted, and what they think has happened to Babylon. The trailer ends up saying not “Here’s a story you might be interested in”, but “Oh look! This is a story you should be interested in because we, the BBC, know best.”

Believing in the power of brand is spectacularly dangerous for media companies. It makes them arrogant, sloppy and (almost worse than that) irritating. They then start to rely too much on so-called analysis, which really is just a platform for the face du jour to expound upon what they believe, and spend nowhere near enough time reporting the facts so that the audience can make up their own minds.

Indeed, this attitude is the very antithesis of Dan Gillmor‘s honest and humble assessment that “the audience knows more than I do.”

I don’t want to hear about what ‘The BBC’ has to say, I don’t want some brand message topping and tailing my news. I want to know what the experts know, and if the BBC can’t get the hell out of my face and just tell me, I’ll go elsewhere for my information.

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