A warm, useful feeling twice a night

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The Independent Culture
NEWS, SAID William Randolph Hearst famously, is something that someone, somewhere doesn't want printed. Everything else is advertising. Television news, the BBC decided yesterday, is something that people everywhere must find warm, accessible and personally useful. Everything else is "policy analysis" and will be on BBC2.

The corporation has, to use its own slightly pompous phraseology, "set out a vision for the future of its journalism today, pledging to set the standards of excellence in broadcast news." A new Six O'Clock News programme will "reflect the increasing diversity of the UK" while a new Nine O'Clock News will have at least half its stories from abroad. But fear not if `abroad' sounds a little chilly. The Nine O'Clock News will, we are assured "also be warmer and more in keeping with the character of BBC1".

I am unsure what the character of BBC1 is. Is it the character of Panorama or Neighbours? Of EastEnders or Omnibus? No doubt careful monitoring of the Nine O' Clock News henceforth will make this clear. In addition the schedulers have announced a popular weekly current affairs programme on BBC1 and a new policy analysis programme on BBC2.

It sounds a curious mix of up and down market. Plenty of eccentricities at six with the serious stuff in the flagship post-watershed bulletin three hours later. No doubt Peter Sissons, Martyn Lewis, Anna Ford et al are practising new expressions even now - relaxed and jovial at six, sit up straight and look concerned at nine.

But however the news programmes themselves pan out, it is the language in which they are described and the methods the BBC has used to arrive at its new format which tell us most about what news is today.

Audiences, says the BBC document, want news programmes to be "more relevant, engaging and accessible". This is just the sort of market research-led judgment which culminates in such superficial gestures as the BBC's 24 hour news service being presented by newsreaders and reporters in their shirtsleeves. They do not look engaging and accessible, just oddly dressed.

The BBC policy statement is the result of the biggest research project into news consumption ever undertaken: 18 months of surveys, questionnaires and market research. The corporation makes much of this. It has gone to its viewers to ask them what they want of news. One of the things they want is "personally useful news", defined by the BBC as areas of life such as education, health and financial management, where consumers are faced with a greater number of choices than in the past.

It's easy to mock such an approach, but it is not necessarily wrong to redefine news from time to time and to reappraise priorities. This newspaper has played some part in doing exactly that, insisting that health, education and the arts are as worthy of coverage and as important in people's lives as the daily round of party politics.

But the BBC, for all its caring language and democratic sounding research, is doing something more worrying and for more worrying reasons. It is surrounded by changing approaches to news. There is Channel 5 with its snap happy, youthful presenters who walk as they talk - a technique which actually seems to baffle as many young viewers as middle aged and elderly. There is the far more serious challenge of CNN and Sky, putting a microphone and camera "where it's happening" and keeping verbal description and analysis to a minimum.

Neither channel has made much effort to spawn a new generation of Martin Bells or John Simpsons. The reporter's role has been made peripheral, this never illustrated better than when CNN's reporter in the Gulf War apologised for inaccuracies by saying he was just reading the script put in front of him.

The BBC has no need to go down this road. Its best newsgathering and explanation has been provided by reporters, from Sir Richard Dimbleby to Kate Adie. There is no short cut and no cheap route to news gathering.

The BBC's fear of reporter-based news springs from the same source as its fear of talking head discussions, uninterrupted by producer-led gimmicks. It underestimates the public's powers of concentration. It underestimates the public's intelligence and curiosity.

There is much in the BBC's new vision about being relevant, engaging and personally useful. There is less about public service broadcasting and education. But news, seriously presented by informed reporters, is a prime educational tool. The BBC should not shirk from saying so.

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