In Depth

Peabody Award Winners: BBC World News America, BBC America, ‘White Horse Village’

Sometimes, even the smallest of stories can convey bigger truths, as with “White Horse Village,” an ongoing series on “BBC World News America” about a Chinese farming hamlet so obscure many Chinese haven’t heard of it.

Carrie Gracie, a Mandarin-speaking former BBC Beijing bureau reporter and current London-based “News 24” anchor, was tipped off to the plight of White Horse Village by Chinese contacts of her ex-husband. The mountain-ringed village was being dismantled by Chinese authorities to accommodate the overcrowding in Wuxi, a booming inland metropolis just five miles away that’s part of the country’s economic miracle.

“We thought it was the perfect metaphor for so many bigger China stories right now,” a tale of “normal people dealing with extraordinary changes,” said Warwick Harrington, a senior producer for the BBC’s flagship newscast “Newsnight.”

Commissioned in spring of 2006, the first story about White Horse Village turned into three, with one more likely to come, said Mr. Harrington. The team has followed the same people throughout, including struggling farmers being evicted from their homes, a local family that has gotten rich through construction contracts and the Communist Party secretary who must convince the local villagers to give up their land, even though they don’t know how much they will be compensated or where they will go.

Each time the cameras return, the lush landscape has changed dramatically as the new buildings get under way and the tensions have risen.

For the most part, the producers have been given permission to film when and where they want, even though some participants aren’t coming off well as the series proceeds, said Mr. Harrington. The Communist Party secretary “knows we’re probably trouble when we turn up, but he just genuinely doesn’t mind,” he said, praising the man’s “incredible hospitality.”

Although the BBC is banned in China, the team bring DVDs of the series when they return. Mostly, the documentary subjects are interested only in the bits where they themselves are seen, Mr. Harrington said, adding, “There is definitely a feeling amongst the villagers that us being there will help them in their fight in getting compensation for their houses.”

The team knows it won’t be able to film the houses coming down when it happens, so they have tried to leave cameras for the villagers to document the event, Mr. Harrington said, without getting anyone in trouble. A return trip is tentatively planned for October.

With its leisurely pace, artful graphics and music, ambient sound and exquisite photography, the series is “uncommonly beautiful for a nightly news feature,” the Peabody judges noted.
“The thing I think we’re most proud of is that it feels and looks like a documentary,” said Mr. Harrington. Nonetheless the individual segments were turned around in a news time frame, he said, each piece shot in four to five days, then edited in Beijing, with graphics added in London.

The pieces have aired in several versions on BBC newscasts worldwide.

Mr. Harrington said receiving a Peabody Award had left him feeling “thrilled,” but a bit like Depeche Mode, the British group that gets little acclaim at home but is well-liked in the U.S.

He said they are hopeful the series will get similar recognition in the U.K.