Day after day on our screens broadcasters have an insatiable appetite for “talking heads”, articulate people who can make interesting television by making a passionate case. Producers are on the look out for people with knowledge of the hot issue of the day who they can use to make interesting viewing. This is why old Owen Jones was never off our screens for years, why you see so much of our Tom Harwood and literal communists like Ash Sarkar on the news shows. They provide opinionated ping-pong television refereed by presenters, sometimes it is a freak show, sometimes we learn something. Harmless so long as the panels are balanced and the viewers told where the talking heads are coming from when they are introduced, viewers can make up their own minds.
During the pandemic, though the trend has been apparent for a long time, talking heads are introduced suggesting viewers should be more inclined to give their opinions weight by virtue of their professional standing. Yet time after time these experts turn out to be undisclosed partisan political campaigners on the issue they are talking about. If this was made transparent the viewers would be much better placed to judge and contextualise the sometimes outlandish claims made.
The BBC have guidelines on the issue:
We should not automatically assume that contributors from other organisations (such as academics, journalists, researchers and representatives of charities and think-tanks) are unbiased. Appropriate information about their affiliations, funding and particular viewpoints should be made available to the audience, when relevant to the context.
On financial news channels (like CNBC, Bloomberg and Reuters) when fund managers are interviewed about their views on the stock market the presenter will often ask them “do you own the stock?”. Sometimes there will be a disclaimer at the bottom of the screen saying the fund manager has a position in the company being discussed. This came about after a number of scandals where interviewees had talked up stocks they were long or disparaged stocks they short. The principle is clear, if you have skin in the game, you are not a neutral expert. There should be a similar protocol for talking heads who are political campaigners.
Either when they are introduced or on screen at the bottom, it would be helpful if “Tracey Teacher is a Tory activist” or “Professor Boffin is a Communist Party central committee member” was indicated. No one is saying they should not be allowed to give their views, we’re just asking that their affiliations should be clearly labelled. Otherwise we end up with “news investigations” which are little more than party political broadcasts…