It was shortly after 6am when a BBC radio producer woke Simon Boxall for his instant opinion on a tsunami 6,000 miles away about which he had no prior knowledge.

Boxall, an oceanographer at the University of Southampton, knew the drill. He was live on air within two minutes of waking up. He recalls doing a further 20 phone interviews before he had time for a shower. “Then I was ready for TV.”

With every breaking news story — from natural disasters to terrorist attacks — there is an immediate rush for explanation. Rolling news channels come into their own. News shows, usually a series of tightly edited packages, tear up their scripts.

“It’s a step into the dark,” says Stewart Purvis, former editor-in-chief of ITN, describing the first few minutes after a major event. “You have no pictures [from the scene]. You’re left with people to fill the time.”

The people broadcasters really want are the decision makers — prime ministers and presidents. The next best thing are the pundits, talking heads and rent-a-quotes: anyone who is credible, engaging and, most importantly, available.

Boxall is one of the willing participants. He has commented on the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, and a flotilla of lost rubber ducks reaching the UK mainland.

“Academics come in three sizes,” he says. “There are those who you wouldn’t want to comment, because they’d be awful. There are those who are happy to comment but some time next week when they’re free. And there are those who think someone needs to comment straight away.”

Not infrequently, broadcasters’ hunt for a talking head goes wrong. In January, Fox News interviewed Steve Emerson, a self-described terrorism expert, who said that Birmingham contained “no-go zones” for non-Muslims, and that London had “actual religious police” beating inappropriately dressed pedestrians. (“You know, mistakes are made. What can I tell you?” an apologetic Emerson said afterwards.)

Guy Goma
Guy Goma, an IT specialist who in 2006 went to the BBC for a job interview and, after being mistaken for a technology journalist, was interviewed live on air about a trademark dispute

In 2006, a Congolese man called Guy Goma turned up at the BBC for a job interview in the IT department, was mistaken for a technology journalist, accompanied to a television studio and interviewed live about a trademark dispute. (“It was so fast — I just said, ‘Keep going,’” said Goma who, incidentally, didn’t get the IT job.)

Even when mis-steps are avoided, viewers can be left unsatisfied by these experts. “We’re left knowing a lot — but understanding little,” says Alain de Botton, a philosopher whose last book The News: a User’s Manual tackled the news industry. “We need to be invited to think something.” Others dismiss pundits as blowhards marketing a book or an organisation.

So who are the talking heads? And do they really help us understand anything?

In the US, where competition between cable news networks has created a dedicated class of pundits, the best are so in demand that they receive six-figure sums to work exclusively as contributors to a single broadcaster. David Axelrod, former adviser to Barack Obama and Ed Miliband, has just signed on with CNN ahead of next year’s US presidential election.

Budgets are less lavish in the UK, where show producers have to be more resourceful — for example, keeping an expert on hold on the phone so that a rival broadcaster can’t get through. The BBC, Sky and others do usually offer contributors a small payment — perhaps £75 for a TV slot, less for radio. “These things are nice little extras,” says David Learmount, an expert on aviation. “If I did freebies, my phone would never stop ringing.”

For the most conscientious experts, breaking stories are an opportunity to bring their passions into the limelight. In the search for flight MH370, there was little that could be said about what had happened to the airliner. But it was at least a chance to correct “a misunderstanding of how vast the oceans are,” says Boxall, who fell in love with oceanography through sailing. Similarly, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill was being “blown out of proportion”, so he endeavoured to put it in the context of other environmental disasters.

But the major prize is profile and influence. “It’s hard to get the public interested in things,” says Mike Conway, an assistant professor of journalism at Indiana University. “Then you have that moment where everyone is paying attention.”

The aftermath of the Paris attacks has provided a forum for former security officials, antiterrorism experts, former diplomats, lawyers, psychologists. A former British soldier appeared on MSNBC and quoted Chinese general Sun Tzu. (“That’s a great start to any conversation,” responded the host.) A representative of an Iranian and Kurdish women’s charity told the BBC that she was concerned about “a selective concern on social media” for terrorist attacks that targeted the west.

Soon the experts were focused on policy options. “That’s where these guys really come into their own,” says Gill Penlington, director of European programming at CNN. A Qatari academic told Al Jazeera that Isis fighters were likely to have taken shelter against air strikes. A former Isis hostage asked, “Is revenge really a proper response?”

Nicolas Hénin
Freed Isis hostage Nicolas Hénin © BBC

Objections to talking heads can be well-founded. The first doubt is whether they are really experts at all. According to research group Media Matters for America, of the 891 guests who appeared on US evening cable and broadcast news shows in the first six months of 2015 to discuss the economy, only 3 per cent were economists. (Meanwhile, on the country’s Sunday morning talk shows, white men made up about two-thirds of all guests — about double their proportion of the general population.)

British output may be different but, says Purvis, “I’ve always thought that anyone with an hour’s notice and access to Wikipedia could make themselves an expert on anything.”

What’s more, even if they are experts, they may not be worth listening to. A study of 284 forecasters by Canadian-American psychologist Philip Tetlock concluded not just that their predictions fared badly over time but that the more frequently an expert appeared in the media, the more likely their forecasts were to be inaccurate.

“[T]here is something wrong with existing mechanisms for getting to the truth both in the media-driven marketplace of ideas and in the top-secret world of intelligence analysis,” he wrote. The qualities prized by the media — succinctness, confidence, showmanship — may not be compatible with the qualities conducive to sound scientific judgment. (Tetlock’s latest book does identify a small group of forecasters who are accurate over time — including a former British defence ministry official and a Maryland pharmacist.)

Another analysis of US pundits, following the attacks of 9/11, found that retired military officials were being portrayed as objective, while maintaining close business ties to the Bush administration. These 20 military analysts were quoted in the media more than 4,500 times in six years, according to Media Matters — equivalent to an average of more than once every two days, per pundit.

On British television, partly because of impartiality rules, few experts are bombastic. “Stick to what you know,” is the refrain of many talking heads. “There’s an assumption from the presenters that we have a hotline to exactly what’s happened,” says Boxall. “I get my news from the same news channels I’m commenting on.”

As Learmount, the aviation expert, puts it, “You can be very useful to a media outlet just by ruling things out.” For example, even shortly after an air crash, it is a reasonable bet that the cause of the plane was not a wing breaking off — because wings rarely break off from modern aircraft.

A separate, contrasting criticism is that the experts miss the wood while they are busy looking at the trees. “The enemy of understanding is the constant quest for impartiality,” says de Botton. He argues that instead of focusing on the minutiae of events — who, why, when and where — TV should concentrate on the broader meaning of events, particularly tragedies.

“The ideal coverage of the Paris attacks”, he says, “would find time to consider: why we find the attacks so compelling, what it means to live in a world where we might suddenly be killed, and the relationship between the fact that we will all die, possibly suddenly, but only a very few of us will be killed suddenly.”

This might, de Botton recognises, require “a commentator who combined the psychological wisdom of a Freudian psychoanalyst with the wisdom of Montaigne and the political insight of Alexis de Tocqueville.” Even so, he believes “it should be do-able, if broadcasters stopped being so lazy” — though few viewers would welcome a rolling news version of Radio 4’s Thought for the Day.

Even pundits themselves occasionally groan at these established formats in the media. “People’s little black books can get a little dated,” admits Claire Fox, director of the Institute of Ideas and a regular contributor to BBC Radio 4. “I once said something vaguely republican and, for about five years, people would call me up.”

Fox is also wary of debates where producers appear to be creating false dichotomies. The use of experts “disguises honest, open discussion”, she suggests, and can be used as “a substitute for investigative journalism”.

She adds: “There are times that it is utterly frustrating, and you think, ‘What a waste of my life.’ [But] the media’s remarkably powerful.”

For years, talking heads have been almost the cheapest form of news coverage available — able to fill time for a small fee and a return taxi journey. And yet “viewers are actually baffled”, says Purvis, recalling a focus group where audience members were asked what they made of experts. “They said, ‘We think you journalists are the experts — why do you keep asking these other people?’”

The role of the expert talking head may, however, be shrinking. First, the spread of mobile phones, Skype and other forms of technology mean that there is less time to fill before broadcasters can go directly to eyewitnesses and reporters. “It’s made it easier to get primary voices,” says Sam Taylor, controller of the BBC News Channel. “It’s changed dramatically in the last couple of years.”

Second, there is now an even cheaper alternative to studio pundits: screenshots of Twitter and Facebook messages. Broadcasters have access to a livelier — and probably more diverse — group of opinions online than through their contacts books. With the right graphics, “you can make these sources of information into good television”, Taylor says.

For now, the prescription for potential pundits remains the same: sound authoritative, talk in short sentences, and always answer your phone.

Henry Mance is the FT’s media correspondent

Photograph: BBC

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