REVIEW OF INTERNATIONAL RADIO JOURNALISM: HISTORY, THEORY AND PRACTICE BY TIM CROOK


Review by Richard Duncan Rudin, published in The Radio Magazine on 14th February 1998

The reviewer is a former independent radio newscaster and reporter who now lectures on broadcast journalism courses in Liverpool

(You can read one of the chapters from this book and find details of how to order it by clicking here.)


This celebration of radio reporting, as a distinct and separate type of journalism, is well-timed. With the BBC imposing 'bi-media' journalism, often resulting in radio reports and interviews being mere audio tracks of pieces produced primarily for TV and commercial radio's main national and international news provider now part of Independent TELEVISION News, it is not surprising that many in the radio world feel the survival of a separate and distinct form of journalism is in question.

Radio is, as the thrust of this book convincingly argues, a very different medium from television and is, emphatically, not just 'TV without the pictures'. Supporters of radio might retort 'TV is radio without the intellect.' The immediacy, flexibility and relative cheapness of radio and the unique psychological impact of voices and 'actuality' without the distraction or necessity of moving pictures, has the potential, often wasted, to get to the guts of a story and to deeply affect the listener. Fortunately a stubborn bunch of journalists refuses to accept that radio is 'second best' to anything.

Tim Crook is Head of Radio at Goldsmiths' College in London but the focus of the book, despite its subtitle is emphatically NOT focused on academic debate. It is as much a 'How To' book for aspiring and established radio journalists as it is a theoretical and historical guide. The historical background covers most of the well-worn paths of the fledgling BBC's response to government pressure in the General Strike, through to appeasement in the '30's and the censorship of both left and right opponents of government policy, to the 'phoney', then 'real', war reporting in World War II.

Crook is always keen to praise and to hold up as shining examples those reporters who have shown exemplary courage, tenacity and skill in getting their story aired - especially in difficult physical and personal circumstances and when their reports fly in the face of what is known and accepted at the time. He gives special attention to the scandalous lack of reporting of the Holocaust, especially from December 1942 when the Allies formally acknowledged the existence of the death camps. He argues with devastatingly well argued evidence, that, if the BBC Overseas Service had broadcast specific and unambiguous messages that the Allies knew what was going on and were going to take action, then many hundreds of thousands of lives might have been saved. This, emphatically, was not radio's finest hour. The indifference and sometimes direct censorship of reports of the Holocaust even extended to a report made by Richard Dimbleby shortly after entering Bergen-Belsen concentration camp - which Crook believes has never been broadcast in its entirety. "Initially the BBC refused to transmit his report. He broke down when attempting to record it the first time. The BBC hesitated, ostensibly because they wanted confirmation from newspaper reports in the same way broadcast news editors hesitate before broadcasting a correspondent's exclusive because they would prefer to 'see the story on the wires.' Dimbleby had the courage of his convictions, rang Broadcasting House and informed his superiors that he would never broadcast again in his life if they continued to suppress his report." The theoretical perspective concentrates on issues of 'Objectivity' and 'Truth' as well as pressures from those enduring sources of difficulty, politics and advertising. Some of the examples given of interference from these quarters are disturbing.

Inevitably this section links with the practice element, which contains some excellent working modules on presentation; how to use the voice, and to read and write scripts, as well as an A-Z of words and expressions best avoided and their possible alternatives, which many current, as well as would-be, broadcasters could benefit from studying and applying. I particularly liked the section of the differences between a good and a poor radio journalist. All of this is so good and so useful that sometimes the international perspective occasionally gets in the way; distracting rather than enlightening.

Crook acknowledges that attempting to adequately cover history and practice across the globe is an impossible task in a book of this length, so he settles, in the main, for a comparative study between Britain, Australia and the United States; although Canada, South Africa, Venezuela, France, Austria and some others get a 'listen-in'. At times though, I had the feeling that the author realised his commentary was becoming too British-centric and put in a 'this is how another country did / does it' paragraph to justify that part of the subtitle. This is especially true of the 'legal' section, which inevitably concentrates on English law and on the definitions and perils of that intimidating pair, Defamation and Contempt of Court. It is a credit to the author that, on the whole, he carries off such a difficult, if not impossible, task so well.

Any misgivings on this approach are more than made up for by the enthusiastic and perceptive way in which he makes a convincing case for the social usefulness of radio journalism and its vital role in democracy and individual freedom.

A clue to the reasons for the unusual focus and tone of the book could well be in the author's background. Whereas close on half of Crook's contemporaries at LBC Radio in the mid-'80's were recruited from Oxbridge, he was a road sweeper for the Corporation of London with aspirations to be a poet when he was recruited for the first vocational radio journalism course in Britain outside the BBC. He quickly became an established voice familiar throughout most of the country as a reporter at the Old Bailey, through the LBC-run national commercial radio news service, IRN. He's now had some twenty years at the 'coal face', including successful battles with the courts to allow reporting on matters which they tried to keep secret, which all UK journalists have benefited from, through continued work as head of a freelance news agency and as talk show host on the 'new' LBC. It is this perspective from the commercial sector which provides the book with its unique focus. The author expresses outrage that the Corporation held an official monopoly of radio broadcasting for more than fifty years, including nearly twenty years when commercial television had been established - a situation blamed by successive governments on a mixture of dubious ideological standpoints and completely false claims about frequency scarcity. The latter, as Crook points out, are still being used today to justify the relative paucity of outlets, in spite of numerous large gaps in the FM band.

The penultimate chapter of the book is a history of independent radio journalism, inevitably focusing on LBC/IRN. Although Crook contends that the 'golden age' of radio news has not ended, it is hard, reading this, not to believe that the best may indeed be behind us. From his account, it is possible to identify a 'golden decade' from about 1976/77 - when LBC had overcome its initial financial problems and IRN had established itself as an authoritative alternative voice to the BBC, often scooping the mighty corporation and backed by a national network of subscribing and contributing local stations - through to 1987, when a series of disastrous editorial and financial decisions were made at LBC/IRN, partly prompted by the coming of 'regulation with a light touch', outlined in that year's Green Paper. It is an almost eerie experience to read how, during this decade, it was quite routine to send reporters out on international as well as national assignments, purely for radio - and commercial radio at that.

The crude and clumsy censorship of Richard Dimbleby's day is now unnecessary. Simply by reducing the news team so that journalists are rarely able to get out of the newsroom, let alone have the chance to come 'off rota' to do some real 'digging', means they are reliant on the PR industry and the now (in)famous party spin doctors to feed them sufficient information for their cheap and cheerful bulletins. Crook points out they do not have the chance to build up the vital contacts to give them a different perspective on a story, or, apart from crime or accident stories, to break the news, as opposed to merely following up, or re-writing, stories from other media. The sort of in-depth documentary reporting which Crook was involved in through IRN's networked Decision Makers programme has all but disappeared in the commercial sector.

This is a unique account of what the author acknowledges is very under-researched area of our broadcasting history. Although Crook laments much of the current trends in editorial and management practice in both BBC and commercial radio, he remains an optimist. As he points out though, the only NATIONAL commercial radio news outlet (apart from the sound-bite format and increasingly tabloid agenda of IRN's bulletin service) is, ironically, not on an all-speech network but Classic FM and its weekday 'Reports' programme.

The new digital production technology and vast improvements in telecommunications, well described and pictured here, have greatly reduced the time and increased the scope of radio reporting and this, combined with the possibilities created by digital radio broadcasting, could result in an even more golden age of radio journalism. With more enthusiastic and dedicated trainers and practitioners like Tim Crook there would be no doubt about it.