On Monday BBC South East opened its doors to 14 members of the public to produce the day’s key television and radio news programmes. Caitlin Pike joined them
On the eve of publication of the Government’s white paper on the future of the BBC, director general Mark Thompson was toasting the success of an experiment which has pushed the concept of citizen journalism to its limits.
Thompson was at BBC South East’s headquarters in Tunbridge Wells to observe Making It! — a one-day project that handed over the production of evening flagship news programme South East Today, as well as BBC Radio Kent’s drivetime show and Kent’s Where I Live website to 14 licence fee payers.
Making It! is the latest BBC initiative aimed at improving interaction with audiences and media literacy among the public — one of culture secretary Tessa Jowell’s many demands for the BBC to meet over the 10-year period of its new charter.
At the end of the day, which ran surprisingly smoothly considering the newsroom was taken over by "Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells", Thompson delivered his verdict on the set of South East Today: "It has been an experiment which I feel really excited about. As you know, when something works at the BBC we go on repeating it. Quite apart from getting perspectives and stories you wouldn’t otherwise hear, all of us inside broadcasting can get stuck in our silos and you have reminded us just how much fun what we do is.
"It has been a privilege to have you with us and we will do this elsewhere, in other parts of the BBC and expand it beyond journalism and current affairs to other types of programmes."
Thompson went on to share his views on how the public and "citizen journalists" would play a part in the future of news gathering and broadcasting as technology became more accessible: "The public is going to take over broadcasting in many ways and as the BBC is owned by the public, it’s the public’s broadcaster, so for us it is an exciting moment. It means we have to start turning out from the BBC and start talking to the public more and listening to them rather than navel gazing, which is always a danger.
"This [Making It!] is one way of doing it. I can’t think of a bit of our regional network that wouldn’t benefit from this kind of project. I think we sometimes think of the audience as rather unsophisticated, but today has reminded us how hard they think about what we do, it’s very good for us to have people in."
The 14 people who came into BBC South East were selected from 450 applicants who heard the project advertised on South East Today and BBC Radio Kent. They were a diverse group ranging in age from 22 to 64 and brought with them as many perspectives, opinions and experiences to the programmes as they did collective years. Their input was considerable, despite the technological, logistical and legal requirements being managed by the BBC professionals who worked alongside the amateurs.
Thompson said the programmes’
content, which the participants were responsible for, had been remarkably "real and rich". As an observer of the project I was struck by how original the ideas and stories the participants brought to the newsroom were. Their enthusiasm gave an injection of real life to the newsroom world of deadlines, packages and pieces to camera.
Vicki Berry, assistant editor of South East Today, said she was surprised by the competence of the participants and what they brought to the newsroom: "It has been much more of a two-way street than I thought. They have been full of ideas and haven’t got annoyed when we have said that won’t work because of a, b or c. They have brought a real buzz to the place. Sometimes you get to a stage where everyday you feel like you are just doing your job, where as today has been very interesting and has really made you focus on what you do and question your assumptions."
Making It! participant Rick Davis, a cab driver from Kent, was appointed programme editor of Radio Kent’s Drivetime show. Davis also brought in the lead story for South East Today, which Thompson said was particularly strong. The story related how local Kent cab drivers are now so afraid of being attacked after a recent spate of knifepoint robberies by passengers that many of them have taken to arming themselves with a variety of weapons.
Another participant was former drug addict Philip Hill, 26, who is now an art student and voluntary youth worker.
For Making It! Hill worked as a reporter. He made an authored package on the lack of awareness among Kent’s young people of the long-term affects of drug use on mental health.
Mike Hapgood, head of South East Today, said he was pleased to have hosted the first Making It! and that the region was continually working to involve the public more and more in the BBC’s work. He admitted that the arrival of the public in the newsroom did bring its risks: "I hope there are some surprises in the programmes the Making It! team produce, but surprises of the nicest kind. There is a degree of risk, but most of all I don’t want to be surprised by the programmes’ dullness, as you can be by the BBC’s news output sometimes.
"The best element of the project so far is that they have brought four stories in here that we wouldn’t have covered or wouldn’t have covered in that way, which is fantastic."