Roy Staines: How live subtitles ruined Boris Johnson’s election speech

Posted on May 8, 2012



On Friday evening I was watching the climax of the Mayor of London election saga live on TV.

I had BBC News 24 and Sky News to choose from. I deliberated over which would have the most accurate subtitles.  I went for Sky News – thinking they might have the edge over BBC, as so many Deafies have grumbled about the poor quality of the BBC’s live subtitling.

As it was a national announcement, I expected to read subtitles showing exactly what the results were. When the announcements started, (according to the subtitles) the official said he would be going through the list of candidate names, giving the tally of their votes.

What followed was one of the worst streams of subtitles I’ve ever come across.

I would expect the subtitler to know beforehand who the candidates were, and key that into the system.  Not all candidates came up on screen, and for some we got only the party name. Then the last candidate was omitted altogether (luckily, I remembered their name from the voting slip).

The numbers kept being corrected. It was mumbo jumbo that just got worse, like a domino effect. Utter chaos.

Then the 2nd preference votes were announced, adding that to the 1st preference votes. Then the subtitles got into a real mess. Rather than giving the announced number of votes for Johnson it ended up saying simply ‘over 1 million’.

I thought ‘oh well I’ll look it all up on the Internet later’ as it was clear enough that Johnson was re-elected, though I didn’t know what the majority was.

But that was followed by the post-election speeches, with Boris Johnson first.  The subtitles were not too bad (though they spluttered from time to time). But then suddenly they stopped.

All I saw, as Boris continued to speak, was the end of programme reference to IMS and the email address to contact them.

I had no idea what Boris was saying.

I looked at my watch and it was exactly 12 midnight.  The subtitler had clearly packed up to go home as it was the end of their shift – leaving deaf viewers in limbo.

I stared at the screen in disbelief. When it finally registered with me what had happened, I then switched over to BBC News where fortunately there were still subtitles.

This was a live situation of national interest for which Sky (which would usually break for adverts at midnight) let the live coverage continue. So why couldn’t the subtitler consider the interests of deaf viewers?

Roy Staines is deaf with Ushers. He has campaigned for many years for deaf and deafblind people mainly on consumer and technology issues.  He is currently trustee of Sense, charity for deafblind people, and represents on stakeholder groups.  He has retired from a lifetime career in Information Technology and enjoys pursuing his varied interests that he has more time for but still runs out of time!

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Posted in: opinion, roy staines