The news: Lord Snooty bows to the forelock-tuggers

A t long last, with the arrival of digital television a real multi- channel environment will be upon us. What effect will it have on the style and quality of British television news? For paradoxical reasons, it may be the BBC, not its frankly commercial competitors, which will need to go down market in the search for bigger audiences.

BBC news producers resent the suggestion that they are "dumbing down". But that is what it may come to as the Corporation increasingly feels the need to justify the licence fee by pointing to the biggest possible market in a world where viewers have the choice of many news providers. Commercial providers, whether terrestrial, cable or satellite, only need to make as much profit as will satisfy their shareholders. This is one case where the demands of politics could be more voracious than those of the market.

The days have been gone for many years when both the BBC and ITN could count on a captive audience for the Nine O'Clock News and News at Ten. But until the coming of digital, this was concealed by the relative failure of satellite and cable to take hold in Britain as they have in the United States.

There are several reasons for this difference. One is that the picture quality from broadcast signals in many parts of the US was so poor that people moved to cable; another that the content on the traditional three networks, CBS, NBC and ABC, was so predictable and dull that people wanted a change. Only recently have cable and satellite broadcasters in the US started really ploughing profits back into programme content.

The BBC can be proud of the way it has hung on to market share since the coming of BSkyB. Only in sport, where the BBC is not allowed to spend public money to match Rupert Murdoch's top dollar, has Sky really hit the ratings jackpot.

In homes with satellite and cable, the BBC and the other terrestrial channels scored an amazing 60 per cent last year, almost four times BSkyB's 15.3 per cent. That was far more than BBC executives themselves dared hope, and far, far more than the Murdoch ideologues - who hold the antipodean theory that British people only watch BBC because they are tugging their forelocks to Lord Snooty and the Establishment - could believe.

But now the coming of digital may mean that the BBC's primacy where it matters most, in the seriousness and reputation of its news reporting, may melt away.

Adam Boulton, the political editor of Sky News, has an obvious axe to grind. But he argues persuasively that the BBC will have to head down market because it can only justify the licence fee if it can show the biggest possible audience. In order to do that, it will go for the "very populist, lowest common denominator". He argues that Sky News's audience, which is relatively tiny, is already a narrowcast audience with a less populist agenda. And he points to remarks by Tony Hall, the head of news at the BBC, to the effect that you "can't make people eat their greens" as an admission that - however much Hall and others deny they are dumbing down - that is in fact what they will have to do.

It is this need to justify the licence fee that is the strategic reason behind the Somme-like battle over the prime time audience. The heaviest fighting is over the early evening. The BBC is counting on a populist news bulletin to hold on to the Neighbours audience. (So much for the Lord Snooty theory!) That is why the BBC is throwing in Jill Dando ahead of more experienced journalists. For the same reason ITN is moving its main news bulletin to 6:30pm.

On the face of it, the BBC ought to have the resources to make mincemeat of all challengers. It has its enormous roster of correspondents and stringers, paid for with public money through the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. It has incomparable talent and experience.

Unfortunately for its admirers, it has not been inspired in its use of these resources. The managerialist climate of the Birt/Hall regime has alienated many of the most committed journalists. Yet serious management mistakes have been made. First everyone had to move to White City. Now they will all move back to a newly refurbished Bush House. The new newsroom computer is regarded by those who have to work with it as a disaster. And the BBC is still operating at least four different news operations, not always harmoniously. There is the world service radio network; the domestic newsroom, with a distinctly Fleet Street news agenda; world service television, sadly starved of resources; and 24 hour news, which to put it charitably has not got off to a brilliant start.

The danger is that BBC news will fall between all these stools. If it is used by top management as a tool to maximize prime time audience and so justify the licence fee, it will risk opening a flank to specialist news competitors, like Bloomberg, Pearson or Reuters.

Already in print journalism the strongest commitment to international news, and serious political reporting comes conspicuously from those - the Financial Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Economist, the International Herald Tribune - who aim largely at a business audience. It is possible that, if the BBC drives down market, it will lose the vital market sector made up of opinion formers, here and abroad, to those who are willing to settle for making money out of a small, high-income business audience.

If that were to happen, British broadcasting would be in danger of going the way of the British newspaper industry, with its decades-out-of-date division between broadsheet toffs and tabloid proles. And of course if that were to happen, the case for public service broadcasting, and for the licence fee, would truly need to be re-assessed. There is bathwater here, and there are babies.

Arts and Entertainment
Ellie Levenson’s The Election book demystifies politics for children
bookNew children's book primes the next generation for politics
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams' “Happy” was the most searched-for song lyric of 2014
musicThe power of song never greater, according to our internet searches
Arts and Entertainment
Roffey says: 'All of us carry shame and taboo around about our sexuality. But I was determined not to let shame stop me writing my memoir.'
Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods

Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special

tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Transformers: Age of Extinction was the most searched for movie in the UK in 2014

Arts and Entertainment
Mark Ronson has had two UK number two singles but never a number one...yet

Arts and Entertainment
Clara Amfo will take over from Jameela Jamil on 25 January

Arts and Entertainment
This is New England: Ken Cheeseman, Ann Dowd, Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins in Olive Kitteridge

The most magnificently miserable show on television in a long timeTV
Arts and Entertainment
Andrea Faustini looks triumphant after hearing he has not made it through to Sunday's live final

Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Shenaz Treasurywala
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

    The West needs more than a White Knight

    Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
    Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

    'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

    Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
    The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

    The stories that defined 2014

    From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
    Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

    Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

    Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
    Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

    Finally, a diet that works

    Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
    Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

    Say it with... lyrics

    The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
    Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

    The joys of 'thinkering'

    Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
    Monique Roffey: The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections

    Monique Roffey interview

    The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections
    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
    DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
    Olivia Jacobs & Ben Caplan: 'Ben thought the play was called 'Christian Love'. It was 'Christie in Love' - about a necrophiliac serial killer'

    How we met

    Olivia Jacobs and Ben Caplan
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

    Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

    Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
    Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

    Who does your club need in the transfer window?

    Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
    The Last Word: From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015