February 13th, 2009
I was woken up at 6am this morning by our doorbell ringing. Not a good way to begin Friday the 13th!
Half asleep I stumbled to the door wondering whether it was an emergency or a prank caller.
It turned out to be neither. It was a taxi. From GMTV (UK independent television station ITV’s breakfast show).
Had I forgotten I was supposed to be on television? I can be a bit scatty, but even on my worst days I don’t think I’d forget something like that.
I asked the driver to wait, and checked my phone. Sure enough there had been several missed calls and a message:
“Hello! This is a message for, er, Petra Boynton. It’s _______ at GMTV at the ridiculously early hour of, uh, 5.23. Just calling on the off chance whether you might be able to do a interview with us on the sofa today regarding teenage pregnancies. If you get this message within the next sort of hour or so, um, give us a call ___________. Thank you very much. Bye bye.”
Phew! I wasn’t losing my memory, but what the hell was going on? As a person who believes strongly about sharing evidence with the public, particularly on issues like teen pregnancy where controversy often overrides straightforward and reassuring advice. So part of me felt duty bound to pop on a frock and dash down to GMTV. But I’d never experienced a cab turning up to take me to a studio without it being confirmed by me and the TV show in advance. What was the protocol here?
I thanked the driver and apologised to him for having his time wasted. I explained I hadn’t been told he was coming and was not able to go with him to the studio. He was exceptionally polite given his time had been wasted on a cold and icy morning, but asked if I could ring the studio and tell them I wasn’t coming in so he wouldn’t be held responsible.
I duly did this, and spoke to the person who’d previously left me the message. They explained they’d sent the taxi on the off chance I might be available. Although their phone message implied if I called back within the hour they’d organise something, but clearly they’d dispatched the cab around the same time they rang me as it was at my door within half an hour of their call.
I explained (admittedly in a very shirty way) that I was not able to come to the studio, that I had no childcare for the morning and wasn’t able to just drop everything and get into a taxi. Their response? Well, you might expect it would be ‘sorry we woke you, or sorry you’re not available’. Instead they said (in a brisk and matter of fact way) ‘well there’s been an air crash in America so we’ve kind of been focusing on that’ – as if that completely explained why a cab had been sent out to me in the early hours of the morning for an interview on a completely different topic.
Now I was really hacked off. My partner and I had been woken earlier than we’d like (and with a toddler in the house you know how precious any additional sleep time might be). I’d not been given the chance to respond to an invitation, a cab had simply been sent to get me. I’d no real idea what my contribution would be covering aside from ‘Teenage Pregnancy’ (which could mean a whole host of things). And when I raised my concerns I’d been woken early and couldn’t rearrange my schedule I was given the excuse that they were busy covering an aircrash – without any apparent sympathy for those who had lost their lives in the tragic event. That was just one more news story to bolt into their show, just as I was something that might be slotted in.
I suggested that in future if they wanted to get me on the programme a good idea would be to confirm it the day or even night before, but certainly not to dispatch a cab without talking to me in person first. The briefest and most insincere apology (‘yeah, sorry about that’) followed. Clearly since I wasn’t able to come in I was no longer worth talking to.
So. Am I being unreasonable (AIBU) to be truly pissed off at GMTV? What do you think? I’d love to hear from journalists working in television (particularly news) to see if this is standard practice. I’d like to hear from anyone who acts as an expert within media to see if this has ever happened before. And I’d like to hear from anyone who watches breakfast television to see if you think I should have got in the taxi or not.
Here’s why I think this case is a problem. For a start it’s intrusive, annoying and has the potential to scare the living daylights out of people and their neighbours with an unsolicited driver arriving on their doorstep (not to mention the possibility of putting said driver at risk). I wonder if it does happen fairly regularly and folk aren’t available when the cab turns up, how much does this cost television companies?
Is it really the best way to get the right person on your show? Let’s think about that. If someone is woken at 6am and is ready and willing to jump in a cab to come for a show they know very little about, are they really the best person for the job? True, they may be a very helpful person and you may be lucky they have the time and ability to come straight to you. But most people have other commitments like childcare or work meaning they can’t just drop anything to be on your programme – as they have a life going on outside it. The person who can fit in immediately may not represent the most cutting-edge expert since presumably someone who is more professional would have professional things to be getting on with that they couldn’t just shelve.
My concern with the media is very often ‘experts’ who are used on programmes aren’t the best qualified. They’re the ones who’ll say what a producer/editor wants to hear, or who make themselves available. And the reason they do this is because they usually have a product or service to promote and they use TV and other media appearances as a means of advertising those activities.
My other concern is that journalists very often know this and just don’t care. In this case I have been on GMTV before, but I don’t think they all sat down at 5am and thought ‘hey, that Petra was amazing last time she was on, I know it’s early but she was so fantastic and it’s so important this story is given the right treatment let’s do our best to get her to the studio’. What probably happened was they thought ‘here’s a story on teenage pregnancy we want to cover, who’s in our records who’s local and can discuss that. Ah, Petra, she’ll do. Send the cab’.
Or perhaps they’d booked someone else, that person had pulled out, and they assumed again that I was local and would do. This kind of ‘making do’ also isn’t acceptable since you may be replacing someone highly qualified with whoever you can find. On a topic so serious as teenage pregnancy you really don’t want someone who’s not directly working in this area to be talking, otherwise viewers will be misled.
In just sending cabs on the off chance you could get lucky and find a really excellent expert, but in reality you’re most likely to either waste your cash on a cab for someone who won’t take part, or you’ll get someone who wants to be on TV more than they want to share accurate evidence. As I said, unfortunately I don’t think many journalists care. Having someone to say something is more important than having someone who’s right for the job say the right thing.
Of course it’s completely reasonable for journalists to ask people to be on early morning programmes if they give someone notice. I started this week with a great discussion on sex education on the Today programme, for example. The only difference was the producers of that show called me the night before and we confirmed what I could talk about, and arranged transport so I’d be there on time.
GMTV could have done this the right way by calling me the night before (even late in the evening would have been fine). The story they wanted to cover would have been on their radar the evening before the show aired, so this would have been entirely possible. We could have then identified the issue they wanted to cover and I could have worked out if it was something I’d be able to contribute to (or whether they would be covering it in a way that wouldn’t let me get evidence across). I could have assessed if it was right for me, and they would have learned I was fully qualified to talk to their viewers.
I’m used to journalists leaving me messages in the early hours of the morning for breakfast shows. Usually they start earlier than I do, and I always call back and confirm if I can help or not.
This isn’t about making contact in the early hours. It’s the way that was followed up with an assumption that a cab could be sent out to get me without checking first whether I was available.
So no I don’t think IABU about GMTV. And if you agree I’d recommend someone digs a little deeper into the practices of radio and television news broadcasting to find out just how often this goes on. After all if cabs are being routinely dispatched and not returning with guests, then money that could be put to better use within the media is being wasted.Tweet