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.

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Catherine Bennett

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