“When people feel deeply, impartiality is bias.”
In one of the most clear-cut cases of ‘biting the hand that feeds you’, Donald Trump lashed out at Twitter last week with one of his ‘Executive Orders’ (‘President’s fury at fact-checking links are latest volley in battle over ‘bias’ – Telegraph Business, 29/5/20): it’s amazing how the tools of State can be used to pursue personal vendettas.
But it’s also amazing how so much of the world’s news is now provided by social media channels, alongside the demise of traditional, objective news-casting. When Lord Reith laid the foundations for the BBC, it was to ‘inform, educate and entertain’: that three-legged stool now seems to place a disproportional emphasis on the latter.
So in this commentary we look at what’s going wrong with broadcast news and why it’s so difficult to finance it commercially.
The first chink in the wall undermining the predominance of objective news and information was the scheduling shift of the main evening television news in the UK from 9 pm to 10 pm, thereby making way for two hours of drama and entertainment before that ‘watershed’, and demoting the main provision of news to a dedicated BBC News channel.
Then, as the internet and mobile revolution spread out carrying instant reports, increasingly on social media, the main news itself began to be diluted with long feature sections and much repetition from one day to the next.
In a sense, nothing speaks stronger of the decline in news coverage than the past two months of the virus emergency. It is, indeed, hard these days to find anything in the main news coverage which is not virus-related. Endless heart-tugging testimonials, special feature series laid out over several days, continuous needling away at local stories such as PPE provision, or what Cummings did or didn’t do – can’t the news editors see that this is not news? on Saturday morning, out of the first 16 ‘top stories’ on the BBC News website, 15 were directly related to local virus-based items.
Even those editions which describe themselves as carrying ‘World News’ are not much better. In order to find out what’s happening around the world, we have to resort to radio or the broadsheet newspapers which, thank goodness, are still maintaining some kind of balance. There we can listen to and read about what’s happening in America, Europe and the Far East, and pick up the business stories and the wider political analysis, compared with the odd snippet on BBC television.
We all know what’s happening here - the BBC is chasing ratings, either to defend its call on the licence fee or to prepare for a subscription-based future. But it’s not clever to lose access to objective, broadly-based news coverage in the process.
Our commentary on 6th January spoke of the challenge for linear transmission broadcasting, and the provision of news is probably the most important ‘baby not to be lost with the bathwater’. If news transmission cannot be funded adequately by commercial advertising, it’s time for a thorough review of how it can be improved and properly funded at the State broadcaster.
Our own experience in Share Radio is that news and current affairs are the most difficult and costly elements to support: for a quality speech radio station, it costs over £0.5 million pa to provide a Breakfast Show made up of news and current affairs, such as the Radio 4 ‘Today Programme’, and it is difficult indeed to find advertising or sponsorship revenues without listener volumes - which do not come easily to quality speech radio. Furthermore, the output is strictly ‘one-use only’ – it cannot be used for transmission and podcasting in the future. So, speaking for ourselves, we are pleased to work now with Radio News Hub, who package the provision of news for a range of commercial radio stations.
But people need access to a broad spread of news covering international, business, general comment and listener feedback and, in normal times, sport. We cannot simply rely on hearsay and snippets on Twitter and Facebook.
The virus emergency has already exposed many of the ‘indispensable’ illusions with which we are used to living: the necessity for mass transportation for commuting , the construction of jungles of office space in city centres, the inertia of a carbon-based economy. Perhaps another is television news, which we can now see as a hollow exercise of repetition, on a narrow and parochial base.
We are one world - let’s see more of it. Lord Reith’s legacy for the BBC is too important than to see it lost in the chase for ratings.
Gavin Oldham OBE