A few days ago I was debating with the bureau chief of one of the
big US networks the BBC’s decision to review its entire news output -
and Channel 5’s blatant appeal to the youth audience, with colour coded
After the show we had a frank exchange. Off air this powerful American
was genuinely perturbed. What was wrong with the BBC sounding the
serious way it did? All three US networks have long-established anchors,
as we have here, because audiences expect it. The executive pointed out
that American TV could learn much from the best practices at the BBC and
ITN, from extensive foreign coverage to the promotion of women and
ethnic minorities as mainstream presenters.
Outside views are always a good corrective. But I happen to think the
BBC would be in dereliction of its duty if it did not take a cool look
at its performance, especially as it is on the brink of recruiting for
24-hour TV news service. The issue goes to the heart of its public duty:
these services absorb both a large proportion of the licence fee and in
return provide a critical flow of information.
Much of the current tone of the BBC’s main news bulletins and programmes
was set in concrete some ten years ago, after John Birt arrived. This
was before the launch of Sky News, the rapid growth in Internet and on-
line news services, and the perception of news as just one more
The BBC’s emphasis has been on developing expert correspondents and
handing out analysis. Until BBC 1 launched an accessible magazine-based
current affairs programme, Here and Now, three years ago, it had wrongly
turned its back on its popular Nationwide tradition.
A recent annual report showed that only a third of adults watched BBC
current affairs, four in ten regional news, with figures for the under-
24s pitifully low. There has been scant innovation: Question Time has
been going 17 years and has lost its way. Radio 5 Live’s success in
mixing serious news and chat may help form the new 24-hour channel,
although its big audiences tune in for sport.
None of this gives the BBC carte blanche to let rip. After some 20 years
of declining ratings, audiences for news programmes are stabilising. The
way to serve younger people and downmarket people may lie, not in adding
pop culture to established bulletins, but in extra news programmes. The
BBC’s Newsround serves around three million young viewers pretty
BBC 2 could devise short slick news programmes and stick them on before
Red Dwarf. These could also direct viewers to the BBC news Web site. It
could expand the frequency of Here and Now. But the unanswered riddle in
all of this is whether a 24-hour news service will expand and
democratise the BBC’s reach? It seems highly unlikely.