Paul Harrison, broadcast journalist and member of the deaf community, cites the 2015 Paris terror attacks as one of the most challenging news stories of his career.
The combination of the rapidly changing - and devastating - circumstances and sheer amount of user-generated content created a working experience that has prepared him for almost anything: “I really learned the job that day. There was a lot of disconnect between actual and fake news, everything needed verification at top speed. This is part of the job for all journalists, being absolutely sure that a piece of content is exactly what it’s claiming to be.”
For Paul, the challenge was particularly pertinent because he is profoundly deaf. And the experience not only tested his news journalism skills, but also how to operate in a crisis when deciphering several languages: English, French and British Sign Language.
Now, Paul is on a six-month attachment with the EBU at our base in Geneva, on loan from our Member, the BBC. London-born, Paul relished the idea of living and working in a country which speaks a different language from his own. He arrived in Geneva in June 2019 to join our news team.
Like all newsrooms, the EBU is a busy, often frenetic environment – challenges which are magnified for a member of the deaf community. To support Paul’s role, we provide a roster of trained interpreters who physically spend the day with Paul, not only interpreting conversations, but also advising on other elements such as office dynamics, atmosphere and background noise – crucial to the daily interactions of the hearing community.
Paul says, “The EBU has supported me in every way possible. Before I came here, I thought it would be a lot of communications with email, with text – but that hasn’t been the case and it’s been about utilizing interpreters which has helped a million per cent. It’s a double benefit for me, you know, it’s awareness about sign language, it’s about deaf culture and representing the deaf world, but also having access to interpreters too. And it’s been great for my shaky French!”
Working in the field, the challenges for sensory impaired people can be acute. “At the BBC, I would often do one to one interviews in the street and, as an interviewer, you must quickly build rapport with the interviewee, and with the rest of the team. In that scenario, an interpreter can be distracting. What you don’t want is the physical sensation of an interview being funneled through the interpreter with the interviewee making eye contact with them, rather than the person asking the questions. Often, we had to figure it out as we went along but what worked well was having the interpreter stand behind the interviewee so that the focus was on the interviewer and, by extension, the audience. It took a while but we got there.”
Paul is, of course, also part of that audience and has experienced first-hand the challenges of trying to fully experience TV and radio content while not being able to hear it. He is positive about the many broadcasters who are making big strides in accessibility, to make the experience richer and more experiential for all viewers, not just a proportion. But taking Europe as a whole, more can – and should – be done.
“Consistency is a big issue. In the UK, public service media such as the BBC and ITV, offer almost 100 per cent captions, with interpreters on screen for approximately 5-10% of the time, either live or via a sub-contractor who records a deaf translator then superimposes them onto the screened image.
But I do know that what the deaf community wants is captioning across the board; they want it to be regular and standardized; ideally at all hours of the day. This isn’t happening now. But this is the bar to aim for.”
A new survey of Member organizations revealed that 70% of their broadcast content, on average, was subtitled with all organizations providing at least some subtitled content.
For Paul, there is a role for the EBU and its Members in highlighting – and taking the lead in addressing - gaps in access services in broadcasting. But it’s essential to consult affected communities at every step.
He cites one broadcaster in France that routinely interprets President Macron’s presidential statements - so far so good. But the interpreter superimposed onto the screen was so small, it was impossible to see it. “They’d thought about accessible programming which was great. But hadn’t considered how it would work in practice. Viewers were basically pressing their noses against the screen to understand the interpretation. Deaf people campaigned to have that little superimposed imaged enlarged – and it made a world of difference.”
Paul is due to return to BBC News in London when his secondment with the EBU ends in late December. But now he has a taste for overseas working – and using his developing language skills. It may be that his return to the UK is via Brussels and Paris, should the opportunity arise!
Follow Paul’s next move on Twitter: @paulbharrison