Belfast Telegraph

It's important broadcasters are fair and balanced in selecting their commentators

By Nelson McCausland

Have you noticed how much airtime, on both radio and television, is taken up these days with commentators and reviewers? I suspect that it is the result of two things.

The first is that there has been such a growth in news coverage and current affairs, particularly with the increase in the number of television channels.

In the evening I can end the day with a half-hour review of the next day’s newspapers on Sky News, and that requires not only a presenter but two reviewers or commentators. It is not the only channel providing such coverage, and it is also creeping more and more into local broadcasting. Even Sunday Sequence on Radio Ulster has its weekly slot for two commentators to review the weekend newspapers.

The second factor is the media hunger for controversy, probably fuelled by a desire to boost the audience figures, and the best way to create a controversy when you haven’t really got one is to recruit two commentators with extreme and opposite views.

Of course, there have always been contributions by people who bring some sort of expertise or specialist insight to an issue, but this is now the age of the professional and general commentator and that takes us into a new area.

Commentators do not merely report the news; they can help to shape the news and to influence public opinion, especially if many of them come from the same general perspective. For that reason it is important that broadcasters, and especially public service broadcasters such as the BBC, are fair and balanced in their selection of commentators.

With this ‘new age’ of the commentator a new word has entered the dictionaries, and it is the word ‘commentariat’.

The first recorded use was in 1993, just over 20 years ago, in The Washington Post, but it is becoming more common and better known.

It is really a ‘blend word’, formed from two existing words.

There are many examples of that and so, for example, the word ‘smog’ is a blend of smoke and fog and the word ‘motel’ is a blend of motor and hotel. So what was the origin of the word ‘commentariat’?

The most plausible and probable explanation is that it is a blend of commentator and commissariat.

The recent death of the Cuban communist leader Fidel Castro brought to mind the days of the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the West, and that word ‘commissariat’ is redolent of the old Soviet communist dictatorship, with its commissars and its commissariats.

It has about it the whiff of dictatorship and control.

But back to the media, and in particular our principal public service broadcaster, the BBC. Is the BBC’s bank of commentators and contributors really fair and balanced?

Northern Ireland is more socially conservative than other parts of the United Kingdom, so is that reflected in the balance of commentators? It is some time since I listened to Sunday Sequence on Radio Ulster, and the reason is that there was a lack of balance in regard to social and moral perspectives.

I suspect it hasn’t really changed much in the meantime. Then what about the political balance of the commentators? Back in 2010 the Director-General of the BBC Mark Thompson admitted that the organisation had been guilty of a “massive bias to the Left”.

That was an extremely important admission and one that deserved greater public and political scrutiny than it received.

He then went on to say that things had changed. Six years on I remain to be convinced, and there are imbalances that have yet to be remedied, of which the ‘commentariat’ is only one.

Belfast Telegraph


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