1980s >> 1988 >> no-1012-december-1988

Thames News or PR?

You cannot hope
to bribe or twist,
thank God!
the British journalist.
But. seeing what
the man will do
unbribed, there’s
no occasion to.
(Humbert Wolfe)

Being at home the other day with flu I happened to watch London’s “independent” TV station’s output of news three times — lunchtime, mid-afternoon and the expanded version at 6.00pm. And a very funny thing happened to one story. At lunchtime, along with a piece of trumpet-blowing about the opening of a new “superstore” development in Rotherhithe, there was a balancing story about the other side to London Docklands Development.

We were shown a three-storey house, the ground floor being a cafe, standing isolated, all nearby buildings having been flattened. That day its owners had been served with a compulsory purchase order so that their house too could be demolished to make way for a road. Apparently they had resisted being forced to sell, and in particular had objected to the low price offered. It seemed that due to a quirk in the law, while property prices in Docklands had soared, the London Docklands Development Board was only obliged to pay them the same price as would have been paid several years earlier. The effect is that, when they had to move, it would have to be outside the Docklands area: they could not afford to buy a house in the area.

At lunchtime Thames News gave all this information, including the specific price the family would receive and the current market value of their house. This is a not untypical story of what has been happening in London Docklands, where the developers were given the green light to go ahead regardless, while local people were elbowed out of the way. So it was not surprising to see this reported.

What was of interest was the way the story developed during the afternoon. A mid-afternoon report from Thames News gave the full story again of the new superstore and followed it with a shorter, blander version of the Compulsory Purchase Order item. Gone from the voice-over was any mention of the “quirk in the law” or any reference to the price (less than 60 per cent of current market value) being imposed on this Poplar family In fact, it was now a mere footnote of an item, hardly worth any time

At 6.00pm Thames News broadcast a longer programme, taking about 30 minutes of peak family viewing time. The new superstore item was given star treatment: we were treated to a live interview with a boring businessman representing Tesco; shown inside the glamorous building and told how many thousands of shoppers were expected each week; and informed of plans for similar superstore/shopping centre developments. Matters of major interest, no doubt, to the shareholders in Tesco, Boots, Marks & Spencer, BHS and other multiple retailers who benefited from five minutes’ free publicity at peak viewing time.

The other Docklands story about the eviction of a local family — their dispossession and the harsh effects of a legal “quirk” forcing them to sell at less than the current market value — this story had been spiked.

The item about the shopping development was not news; it was PR. As with the opening of the Brent Cross Shopping Centre, the developers and stores involved had planned and budgeted for an extensive multi-media advertising campaign to ensure that everyone in the London area was aware of Surrey Quays. For Thames News to spend five minutes of prime time on this trumpet blowing by PR people was presumably an editorial decision, made in conjunction with the decision first to neutralise and later to drop the related story on Docklands development.

Whatever happened, whatever unseen strings were pulled, the end result was that the early evening news was managed, manipulated and emasculated so that the public should see only the officially approved view of London Docklands Development.

CS