Anecdote v. data, story v. research, books v. telly

Last week’s BBC programme?The Secret History of Our Streets has caused a right lorryload of response. In brief, it told the story of the “redevelopment” of Deptford in the 1960s and 1970s, from essentially two points of view: the descendant of a family of stallholders in the old market in Deptford High Street; and the retired chair of Lewisham’s planning committee during the period concerned.

Deptford Misc cheekily but accurately characterises the story told as:

Settled white working class area full of salt of the earth types earning an honest crust destroyed and dispersed by nasty middle class Cholmonderly-Warner types who then shipped in people who have to be sub-titled on television because of their skin colour.

He then follows this up with eye-popping research of his own into the possible sources of wealth of the “working-class” families in Deptford; read the whole post for more.

David Hepworth watched the programme and said this:

It raised questions it failed to even try to answer. Who did this and why? There was no mention of the political leadership of the London County Council at the time. Maybe if they’d been Conservative there would have been. Some streets that were in worse condition than the ones demolished are now gentrified and eye-wateringly expensive. No TV producer can resist the sight of a plummy-voiced agent showing young professionals round one but it would be a lot more edifying to be told how exactly this change came about. What had happened in the 70s, 80s, 90s? What had happened last week? The film didn’t go there at all, probably because it had no pictures.

I came away wanting to read a book.

I agree with pretty much all these comments. But, as Hepworth himself has said on more than one occasion, television is rarely interested in telling the truth. It tells stories. Actually, it tells anecdotes. BBC News has become alarmingly dependent on vox pops over the years, spending more time talking to, for instance, “ordinary” Greeks when covering the Euro crisis than it does talking to Greek economists. BBC News is arguably the strongest holdout for “the story’s the thing” in all of journalism. It refuses, on pretty much any of its platforms, to admit complexity or to parse data. Any of us who have researched a historical period in any depth are familiar with the sinking feeling of things being made simple when watching a BBC history programme. We’re all of us treated like small children, unable to learn unless the gobbets of knowledge are sweetened with enchanting narratives.

Although ironically, the Secret History programme skated right over the most interesting story of all: the tale of the Jamaican immigrant, banged up on arrival in Britain for 28 days and then essentially impressed into army service. In Suez. Now there’s?a story worth the telling.

One thought on “Anecdote v. data, story v. research, books v. telly

  1. Many people got the impression that the councillor interviewed in the programme was responsible for the demolitions, but the reality is that when Nick Taylor was elected in 1971 he fairly quickly stopped the demolitions. A letter from his son Martin appears in the Guardian:


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