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Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Ono.... Honey, I shrunk the Scots!

A couple of media related items....

A column in yesterday's Media Guardian section by the paper's ombudsman, Ian Mayes, noted that London is hosting the 25th annual meeting of ONO -- the Organization of News Ombudsmen -- at which, so the headline tells us, they will celebrate "press accountability."

They're expecting 50 delegates, and a few small trivia points are in order. The first newspaper ombudsman (I wonder why they maintain the gender bias in the title -- I don't think ombudsperson is any less awkward) was appointed in 1967 by a local paper in Louisville, Kentucky. While it is not mentioned whether non-U.S. members outnumber US types in the overall membership of ONO (that really is a terrific acronym), at this forthcoming meeting there will be more delegates from outside the US.

And speaking about media accountability, we should take note of the public reaction in the UK to the new graphics used on the BBC TV weather forecasts.

Now, it must be noted that the BBC has been through a great deal lately. Starting with the Hutton inquiry which threw the entire corporation into turmoil, the organization has been subject to almost constant criticism from both outside and within. Yesterday, for example, several thousand BBC employees conducted a one-day strike in protest of proposed changes that include 3500 redundancies over the next few years. (It is clear how much I have grown attached to the BBC -- yesterday was quite difficult without listening to the Today program on BBC Radio Four and Paxman's Newsnight broadcast at the end of the day.)

But for all that, nothing quite matches the reaction to the change in weather graphics. Those of us who live in the hot media markets in the US have been subjected to all sorts of wild computerized weather graphics over the past several years as local TV stations compete for audiences in the only way they know how -- through bells and whistles. There was a bit of that in evidence when I first came here -- Sky News, ITV news and Channel 4 all had a bit more colorful weather forecasting graphics than the BBC which seemed to rely on the usual cartoonish and static logos placed at appropriate points on maps of the UK. (Just as US weather maps tend to ignore the existence of Canada or Mexico, so the UK maps give the impression there is no weather in the Republic of Ireland...).

So you would think that the shift of the BBC weather folks to a more dynamic and interesting way of describing shifting patterns of rain, clouds and what little sunshine we do get here would be welcome. But the reaction was of course typical of the people who have the tendency to clutch to tradition and other bad habits. They complained. And often they complained loudly. And their complaints made front-page news.

But none of those complaints was more interesting than a comment made by a Scottish Nationalist MP who took note that the new BBC weather maps shrunk the size of Scotland relative to the rest of the UK. "The BBC's news has been bias to the South-east the years," he said, "and now this." I suspect that the size of Scotland on the BBC forecasts will now become part of the SNP manifesto for future elections....

UPDATE (28 May): The BBC has demonstrated once again its uncanny capacity for fair and unbiased reportage by rethinking -- and unshrinking -- the Scots. We can now rest assured that the rain and clouds will now cover all of Scotland....

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