Framed by the Beeb

The BBC’s policy of framing the aftermath of natural disasters as managerial cock-ups can be seen in its coverage of the Philippines typhoon.

This morning’s Today Programme reporting that the Philippines government had ‘conceded’ that its response to the disaster had been impeded by the colossal scale of the devastation.

That is not very different from a sports report describing a team manager ‘admitting’ that a player with two broken legs and concussion would take longer to recover than if he’d just sprained his wrist.

This is the Beeb’s standard take on major catastrophes. Even when a a country with little wealth and poor communications to begin is ripped apart by fire, flood, wind or earthquake, a BBC reporter will helicopter themselves in within hours to say: “People are asking why the authorities are not acting faster. Why is more not being done?”

I can think of two reasons for framing events this way.

First, the BBC sees itself as a cheerleader for the modern myth of progress, the one that paints Technological Man as the master of Nature. It is just not done to report that some things – for instance a hurricane with the power of a dozen nuclear bombs – are big enough to cramp Man’s style. And it’s unthinkable to report that events of such magnitude destroy government resources as easily as those of citizens.

Second, the framing reinforces the idea that there will always always be a powerful, paternalistic authority on hand, ready to step in instantly if things go wrong. It’s as if the Beeb has a script where uniformed men drive up in lorries loaded with food, tents and medical supplies as soon as the wind abates. When they don’t – because there aren’t any and they couldn’t get through if there were – the Corporation’s journalists take it upon themselves to get cross, not on behalf of the disaster victims but on behalf of us viewers sitting comfortably here at home with our BBC-fostered view that the world should be what we want it to be, not as it is.

This narrative has a strong appeal for central media outlets. By appointing themselves as arbiters of whether disasters are being properly handled, they subtly imply that if we don’t hear the media complaining, then ‘the authorities’ (Daddy) must be on top of the situation. That way, reporters don’t have to trek back to the scene years later to focus on the real rebuilding story, which is usually of the courage and resilience of ordinary people and the unglamourous charities and NGOs helping them.

Better still, it absolves the media themselves from making concessions in situations like Fukushima, where neither technology nor the myth of progress have made any headway since the tsunami. 

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