Is the rise of the unscientific vox pop a fresh take on news or just plain laziness? | Catherine Bennett

Broadcasting random comments from ‘the people’ is no substitute for real news-gathering

Traffic noise. Unidentified woman: “If they were reflecting the views of the people they would get on with it but I don’t think they ever will to be honest. It’s been what, three years, since we voted Out and we’re still waiting, they’re just sitting on their bums, in my eyes – just get out of Brexit would be the best for Britain.”

Out of a limited, quickly executed and entirely unscientific sample of the limited, quickly executed and entirely unscientific vox pops to have littered the BBC’s recent news coverage, the above, from Aylesbury, is my favourite contribution. The Today programme’s news correspondent must, justifiably, have been hugging herself.

It seems to be easy – though, admittedly, we never know how many were auditioned – to source people in markets who’ll say such things as “just get on with it” or “he’s doing a good job” or “judges don’t speak for the man in the street, do they?”. But to find, as Sima Kotecha did, the judicial ruling being so effortlessly conflated with “they”, the opponents of “the people”, with “bums” and “Britain” uttered in the same sentence – by someone who sounds annoyed, but not weird – must be the dream response to the presenter’s introduction: “So, how did that momentous supreme court decision go down among voters?”

Fair dos: Kotecha indicated, as much as you can in a report featuring three anti-judge and two anti-Johnson contributions, that voters differ on its momentousness. Some will agree with the Aylesbury man – who was name-checked though not age-checked, according to a BBC vox pop rubric that is as mysterious as its treatment of opinion polls is transparent – that politicians “shouldn’t be able to break the law, it’s disgusting”.

Then again, there was this from “a mother of one”: “He’s in charge of the country, the Queen sort of said it was OK for him to suspend parliament.” And if the Queen was misled? But we’d moved on.

BBC vox pops rarely allow cross-cutting – or any other conventional measure of productive public discourse. In fact, this eager dissemination of unfounded, unchallenged, occasionally misleading or alcohol-misted opinion only contributes to the impression, reinforced by Question Time, that voter deliberation, if not actively redundant, is decreasingly a BBC priority, unlike the successive splats of tweet-like assertions. Hence, among the insights on parliament, on the World at One: “Don’t like the heat, get out of the kitchen, that’s their job innit?” Or, on Today, this Bexleyheath drinker on the judges: “That was in the paper today, that they’re all Remainers.”

Debate itself can emerge as strikingly unpopular in these dodgy portraits of “the nation at large”, as Newsnight framed its package of star opinionators. Cross woman in Maidstone cafe: “It’s very frustrating, they’re just arguing and arguing and arguing and not doing anything, they’re just having a go at Boris.” Rarely can the Habermasian route to democratic consensus have been more compellingly demolished.

The elevation of the five- or six-person vox pop has lately become insistent enough to suggest a BBC policy directive rather than old-fashioned laziness, economy, contempt or desperation. A new “pop-up newsroom” in Stoke, among the UK’s strongest Leave-voting areas, was advertised by the BBC’s news director, Fran Unsworth, as “an important initiative, as we become more audience focused and change the way we gather news”. In practice, one of the pop-up’s many contributions, a weekday shopping-centre vox pop on the World at One, sounded remarkably similar to standard offerings: random, unenlightening, conducted at a time and in circumstances unfriendly to time-poor people, as bereft of under-18s (parental consent required) as it is of any claim to sociological significance, and for reasons of both convenience and disinhibition, anonymous.

Woman on the unlawful suspension of parliament: “I don’t really think people on the top should really have that say, personally, he’s governing the country isn’t he and that’s what he should do, govern the country.” Next up, a man: “It’s just sheer madness, we’ve had three years…”

Without formal analysis of the BBC’s vox pop output – just a voter returning the compliment – the impression that these are often unbalanced accounts of national thinking is supported by recent media scholarship. New research also shows “the direction of the vox pop viewpoint… has a direct effect on people’s personal opinions”.

So, if this shambolic stuff is – whether for low, craven or visionary reasons – to be increasingly commonplace on BBC news and current affairs, the conflict between its traditional, informing ambitions and this form of mischief dictates some rapid adjustments to the editorial guidelines. Would it be simpler, in fact, to reclassify this sort of pointless improv as entertainment? Already, BBC rules look radically more permissive than in 2014. Then: “Vox pops are a tool of illustration, NOT a tool of research… Avoid terminology such as: ‘We’ve been out on the streets to find out what the people of Manchester think about this’.” Now, on The World at One, we’re introduced to “the view from Stoke”. A view that, as extracted and depicted by the BBC plays colourfully and, as above, influentially into narratives of the people versus parliament.

Even current guidelines require, though you’d rarely guess, some clarifying context, since vox pops “only illustrate some aspects of an argument and do not give any indication of the weight or breadth of opinion”. As much as Stoke merits attention, there are reasons to ask why vox pops from this 69.4% pro-Brexit city should have repeatedly featured in BBC state-of-the-nation snapshots, in a politically febrile week, when the nation appears, in a credible poll, to be 53% pro-Remain.

It’s not as if we don’t know, from the case of Naga Munchetty, how much the BBC deplores any suspicion of partiality.

• Catherine Bennett is an Observer columnist

• This article was amended on 1 October 2019 to clarify that Stoke was among the strongest Leave-voting areas of the UK.


Catherine Bennett

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Prince Harry a breath of fresh air? No, a chip off the old block | Catherine Bennett
His offensive gaffe on Today about Meghan Markle’s family revealed he has much in common with his father

Catherine Bennett

31, Dec, 2017 @12:04 AM

Article image
The Today programme:wake up, tune in – and be irritated? | Observer profile
In case you haven’t noticed, Radio 4’s flagship news programme has been celebrating a significant birthday

Andrew Anthony

28, Oct, 2017 @11:05 PM

Article image
Don’t damn critics – we do have our uses, honest | Alex Clark
We highlight hidden treasures and encourage the arts to flourish

Alex Clark

29, Jul, 2017 @11:05 PM

Article image
A truly balanced view from the BBC: don’t blame us for Brexit | James Harding
Remain supporters have accused the corporation of ‘false balance’ during the referendum campaign, while Leavers complain it has exaggerated the negative impact ever since. The BBC’s director of news responds

James Harding

24, Sep, 2016 @11:05 PM

Article image
Why we are fighting to save Radio 4’s The Film Programme | Letters
The show that for 17 years has played a vital role in the arts world is under threat

25, Jul, 2021 @5:00 AM

Article image
The suspension of fertility treatment is a tragedy for many couples | Barbara Ellen
It’s time we dispelled the myths about IVF being a lifestyle choice for career women

Barbara Ellen

25, Apr, 2020 @4:30 PM

Article image
That’s quite enough silly walks from BBC comedy. New voices please | Rebecca Nicholson
The head of the corporation’s comedy department has promised us greater diversity. About time too

Rebecca Nicholson

23, Jun, 2018 @1:01 PM

Article image
BBC Alba must not be allowed to wither for lack of cash | Kevin McKenna
The Gaelic language TV station has met all the targets set for it, yet it is being squeezed of funds for new programming

Kevin McKenna

10, Sep, 2016 @11:05 PM

Article image
Derided before its launch, BBC Scotland has silenced the critics with its excellence | Kevin McKenna
The many naysayers, including myself, were wrong – it’s the best channel on TV

Kevin McKenna

19, May, 2019 @5:00 AM

Article image
We put our shirt on French holiday roulette and the wheel stopped on... amber | Rachel Cooke
It’s been a white-knuckle ride, but we’re finally off to France subject to our Covid ‘declaration of honour’

Rachel Cooke

07, Aug, 2021 @4:27 PM