Television: The News - Bong! Set your own agenda

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The Independent Culture
BBC NEWS: The Future, the Corporation's response to what it correctly identifies as a "period of hyper-competition where increased availability of distribution and falling production costs are leading to an explosion of competing news providers" is an impressive document.

To be sure, it is a hybrid. It is part business plan, with the inevitable buzzwords creeping in: "leverage" (the American stock market equivalent of the British "gearing", wrongly used here), "prioritise", even, God save us, "the leading edge", a metaphor so dead it is beginning to smell. It is part glossy brochure, with bullet points in profusion, colours bleeding into one another and pastel panels. And there is plenty of corporate uplift: pledges, commitments, and the like. I hope and believe the average BBC journalist responds to such corporate exhortation much as he or she would react to starting the day with the company song.

All this is easily mocked, and no doubt will be. But the substance of the review is solid. It is based on research that has not simply come up with the usual panicky populist cliches. It is well-known, for example, that programme loyalty has declined, that few people now make a date to watch the news every night, and that people under 44 are less keen on BBC news than their elders. The report properly focuses on what should be done about it.

Even more relevant to the future style of BBC news, and much less well- known, is the fact that, while people have a high regard for BBC's accuracy and lack of bias, they are highly critical of the BBC's language. That does not mean that, like Mary Whitehouse, they shrink from four-letter words. They think the BBC is talking down to them in a parent-to-child way, instead of addressing them as one adult to another.

The report concludes that "we face the risk of being swamped by a sea of choice and becoming irrelevant to all but a narrow elite". But it does not draw the conclusion that so many, both inside and outside the BBC, fear most. It finds that audiences are "fiercely" opposed to any move by the BBC to "dumb down" its news coverage. They want background, context, explanation. And they do not want a tabloid approach. That's not surprising; it's the tabloids. not the serious papers, that are losing circulation.

Two-thirds of respondents said they thought it was important for the BBC to cover Parliament properly, and six out of ten wanted full coverage of the European Union. It is true that people want more news about things that affect them directly: consumer news, personal finance, schools, health and medicine. But they also want international news, economic and political news, so long as it is properly presented and explained, with clarity and in an unpatronising way.

The good news about BBC News: The Future is that it does not simply parrot the supercilious and undemocratic, "no one ever went broke underestimating the public's taste" philosophy of so many self-appointed experts. It gives the impression that the much-criticised Tony Hall and his colleagues are genuinely trying to work out how much of the BBC's traditional journalistic virtue will serve it well in the choppy seas of the multichannel, digital world, and what new skills it will have to learn.

There are, however, strictly journalistic changes I think would help, and in particular three. Just to show a friendly spirit, I'll give them bullets. Or, to steal from ITN, bongs.

Bong! Setting a BBC Agenda. Too often news schedules are derivative. They reflect a conventional set of news values. Sometimes they look as if they had been copied from the Reuters schedule for foreign news, or from the Press Association. One key is to look for what I call "constructive news": for the story that doesn't just record an event - a vote, a death, a meeting - but tells the viewer how the world has become different, taking the responsibility for saying, for example, that the Asia Pacific boom is over, or that Yeltsin is powerless, I am not talking about being opinionated; I am talking about having the nerve to tell people things the experts are already taking for granted. Another key will be to look for news that does not come into the stale categories.

Bong! Being Regional. Only a tenth of the people in Britain live in London, and fewer than a fifth in Greater London at its widest extent. Yet the BBC never reports regional politics, local government, regional opinion, except in ghetto/regional strands. We are going to have to cover Edinburgh, Stormont and Cardiff. Why can't we cover Manchester, Leeds. Newcastle, Bristol in a less patronizing way? BBC news looks as if the people who ran it were more familiar with Washington than with Manchester, let alone Brussels, and they are.

Bong! Stop nationalising crime. Because the Victorian railways were so good, we have strong national but feeble local newspapers. So historically, Fleet Street papers searched for local crimes, and blew them up into national panics. As a result, many people in Britain have a paranoid sense that the country is about to be swamped by murder, mugging and mayhem, rape, robbery and rabies, not to mention immigrants, when in reality this is a country with a low crime rate, rabies is far commoner in the US than in Europe, and we have almost no immigrants. By reporting crime locally, not blowing it up into one national panic after another, we would remove the temptation for politicians to let the tabloids set their agenda. They might then focus on things that matter, rather than rushing through panicky legislation like the Dangerous Dogs Act.

Let us hope the BBC's response to competition is to set its own agenda, refuse to be panicked, and follows its own best instincts - not the worst instincts of its not-very-successful competitors.

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