I want to be Brian Cox

Watching Professor Brian Cox on BBC2’s Horizon the other night, two things struck me. One was the fact that physics appears to have come quite a long way since I did my GCSE (and got an A in it, for the record). The other was a reminder that being a good communicator is actually a skill in itself.

I’ve been given a guided tour of the CERN nuclear laboratory, on the French/Swiss border: I’ve actually seen all the kit, up close. But its sheer significance didn’t hit me until I saw this video of Brian Cox, professor at the University of Manchester and CERN researcher, speaking at the TED Conference last year. If you haven’t watched it, make a cuppa and enjoy the next 15 minutes.

How can that possibly be? How can it be more affecting to watch a YouTube video of some floppy-haired bloke giving a lecture, than to actually walk the corridors where the history of the universe is being rewritten (present tense)? It’s the most tangible evidence I can think of, that communicating well about what you’re doing is just as important as what you’re doing… with lessons for all of us in this business.

Sometimes I wonder if he’s just a bit too good-looking for his own good: the ‘indie kid’ clothes, the model hair, the dazzling teeth. But there’s no getting away from his sheer talent – and his passion for the subject. You listen to him, and you come away caring about something you know is w-a-y beyond your comprehension. The Horizon programme – ‘Can We Make A Star On Earth?’, about nuclear fusion – is available on iPlayer until mid-April, and it’s well worth an hour of your time.

Govt comms: better, but years behind

Flicking across the news channels tonight, I bumped into recorded coverage of Wednesday’s Lords Communications Committee. You had the BBC’s Frank Gardner and Sky’s Tim Marshall, plus a couple of other senior journalists, giving their frank opinions on the state of media, politics and government. I only caught the last few minutes; it looks like I missed coverage of the earlier session with Nick Robinson and Adam Boulton.

The session closed with each ‘witness’ being asked: is government communication getting better or worse, and how does it need to improve? Fascinatingly, the two TV correspondents referenced the world of multi-platform, multi-media, online-driven news.

Frank Gardner told the committee: ‘I definitely sense a desire to be helpful. [But] they are still in about 1985, when it comes to being in tune with the modern, multimedia environment we work in. We live in a fast-moving media environment. Government departments generally are far too slow – unnecessarily.’

Tim Marshall, never one to mince his words, agreed that things were ‘getting better since 2004, because things were pretty bad before that. The flow of information is much better, putting things on the internet, the Prime Minister’s conferences being televised, Lobby being on the record – these are all very positive things. But there are still not enough professional people [in media operations]. It’s people passing through for two years, sometimes they don’t want to do it.’

Tim then quoted an email from an unnamed colleague, who had recently spoken to a conference of 60 government press officers. ‘I got the distinct impression they are several years off the pace.’ ‘We in the media have had to embrace the blogosphere, all this stuff,’ Tim said in conclusion. ‘We’ve had to, because it’s survive or die. It’s not like that in government press offices, and I don’t think they’ve quite understood 2008, and the multimedia platform.’

So, to any press officers who happen to be reading: it isn’t just the geeks saying this now; it’s the journalists you’re there to serve. They’re telling you – politely, positively – that you aren’t serving them satisfactorily. You need to play catch-up.

PS: I’d never have found this if I hadn’t been channel-hopping at the right moment. The fact is, some of the most insightful and intelligent broadcasting in the UK is happening at weekends on BBC Parliament – and it’s a crying shame that we can’t find a better way to get it out there. The iPlayer is a start (and yes, this recording will thankfully be on iPlayer ‘soon’ – Monday I guess). But surely it’s crying out to be a TED-style podcast series?