MEDIA: BBC current affairs review could be good news for PR

When Jeremy Paxman renewed his contract with the BBC recently, it sent out deceptive signals. Insiders recognise a tough haggler, and never expected him to leave for ITV. But it gave the impression that it’s business as usual across the BBC. That its long delayed strategy review of news and current affairs, now entering its second year, would end in a harmless fudge after all. But we’re heading for an autumn of action.

When Jeremy Paxman renewed his contract with the BBC recently, it

sent out deceptive signals. Insiders recognise a tough haggler, and

never expected him to leave for ITV. But it gave the impression that

it’s business as usual across the BBC. That its long delayed strategy

review of news and current affairs, now entering its second year, would

end in a harmless fudge after all. But we’re heading for an autumn of

action.



It is precisely because the whole revamp is so wide-reaching, even

affecting the basic building block of what a main Nine O’ Clock News

story should be, that there are delays.



Before the BBC heads off in new directions, seeking to reconnect with

audiences, executives try to build a consensus. A similarly deceptive

calm is currently apparent at ITN. The endless debate about News at Ten

is reaching a climax, with a decision in principle to shift it, now due

in September. Of course, certain decisions, to drop marginal programmes,

like the BBC 2 political discussion show The Midnight Hour, are being

made in an opportunistic manner. There are conscientious attempts to

improve news writing skills currently taking place. But the furore about

the fate of presenters on lucrative short-term contracts, such as Peter

Sissons, Edward Stourton, Anna Ford and even Michael Buerk stems from

the fact that some are bound to be dropped.



The BBC has not formally shared its findings about its failure to

attract younger and less-educated viewers with outsiders, but there are

plenty of well-briefed executives and correspondents around. Foreign

news experts, such as John Simpson, are currently insisting that they

can make the globe fascinating to more viewers, by moving away from

famines, disasters and wars to stories which are, simply,

interesting.



They are stung by the way their poorer cousins, regional news,

outperform them because viewers find local news more relevant. The major

candidate for the largest change appears to be the Six O’Clock News,

where the pressure to cede a degree of separateness to the national

regions, above all Scotland, seems irresistible. The new format for the

rest of the UK, apparently requires a youngish presenter ’with

attitude’. That’s a way of saying the BBC would fall upon Kirsty Young,

the most coveted news reader cursed with the lowest ratings (on Channel

5), if she could be prised from her contract with ITN.



All of this has a significance for the PR industry. There may well be a

big reordering of priorities: an appetite for different things, as the

BBC tries to get closer to the real issues stirring people, for

instance, show business stories rather than pure ’arts’. In a way the

huge public interest in outlawing land mines, as opposed to war

reporting, has also shown the way forward.



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