Television: Here is the news: the BBC has lost its common sense about Scotland
Sunday 13 December 1998
Take the BBC. How could they have backed themselves into their nonsense about Scotland? Did no one see that with the Scots in their present mood, with at least an autonomous parliament and in all probability a powerful thrust towards full independence on its way, it was impossible to deny Scotland its own national news bulletin? Did not one of those red-tabbed brigadiers in the BBC hierarchy spot how indefensible the BBC's position would be in a few months?
Of course the BBC has a duty to uphold the British national identity. But had no one there realised that the best way of doing that in the present climate north of the border (not to mention Northern Ireland or Wales) might not be to insist on a news agenda so blatantly offensive to the great majority of Scots in their present mood? We're not talking high principle or patriotism here. We're talking minimum, cover-your-arse common sense.
Three items about Scotland out of 280, if that is the figure, and more items about the pathetic England cricket team than about Scotland, suggests an insensitivity verging on the palaeosaurian.
One of the things the Corporation got very right was Sue Lloyd Roberts's film, on Newsnight on Thursday, about Aung San Suu Kyi, the democracy leader, and the continuing repression in Burma. Lloyd Roberts's report was well balanced between her big interview and her equally memorable reporting on the dire state of human rights and the economy in Burma under the generals. I love the way she tackles these terrifying assignments with the modest air of a housewife determined to take no nonsense from the bank manager.
Will Channel 4 News take up reporting of that quality when it relaunches in January? The channel appears to have committed itself firmly to maintaining C4N's quality while modernising its technology and to some extent its style. It's going to be "different, but the same", says Jon Snow. Jim Gray, the newish editor, says it will be "contemporary, not skittish or faddish".
Channel 4 has committed pounds 10m to the upgrade over five years. There's a new, all-digital newsroom, bought from Quantel, and for the first time a studio of its own, not shared with News at Ten. This is also digital, with pastel colours - lemon, tangerine, ultramarine, and such. Channel 4 has spent pounds 750,000 on a mobile production unit, the "Snowmobile", to enable more stories from outside London. And they'll be buying more from independents: more investigations, more foreign films, and more reports from ethnic minorities.
When all this appears on 4 January, Jon Snow will still be at the helm, flanked by Krishnan Guru-Murthy and Kirsty Lang, with Elinor Goodman still covering Westminster. So the top-heavy management team, split between Channel 4 and the ITN building, are touching all the trendy bases - women, minorities, independent production, technology, innovation - without changing much.
My cynical friends have a couple of thoughts. One is that new brooms at Channel 4 wanted a more radical house-cleaning at Gray's Inn Road. Back-of-camera people get the glory when things change, not when they just go on being well done.
Second, C4N, which inherits more than one million viewers at the top of the hour, was losing many over its 52 minutes. One solution was to "smash the package": to keep viewers watching by coming back to important stories several times in the course of the programme, hopefully going deeper each time. Behind these tactics lie strategic questions for all news executives in a competitive multichannel world. They have discovered that news can make money, but the received wisdom is that you don't need to maximise audiences to maximise revenue. The slogan is "boutique the news", and C4N is well placed to do that if they get things right.
But my bet is that viewers know more about why and how they watch news than news executives sometimes give them credit for. Digital technology makes it possible to improve newsgathering and news production in many ways, and C4N had to grasp the opportunities. The question is whether they will mess about too much with what is after all one of the best news products on the market.
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