Adam gets under Andrew's skin

The BBC may disdain the culture of being first with the news, but it doesn't like coming second either. Tim Luckhurst reports

In My Trade, his history of British journalism, the BBC presenter Andrew Marr reports politicians' fears that the digital revolution may create television "as diverse, openly biased and aggressive as print journalism". Giving evidence to the House of Lords Communication Committee last week, Marr hinted that he shares their concern.

"Our main competitor, Sky News, always trumpets that it is first with this, first with that," he said. "Well, we are the BBC and we have to be sure we are right. We must not, therefore, get into the culture of first with this, first with everything – first and frequently right."

Marr promotes a purist view of journalism. His case is rooted in the Victorian "fourth estate" theory of reporting as a link between people and government. News must not be reduced to infotainment. It is a servant of the public good, is obliged to speak truth to power, and is part of what makes democracies free.

He argues the case eloquently in My Trade, and BBC insiders say he merely repeated it in his evidence to the committee. Sceptics suggest less pure motives: resentment of the success of the Murdoch-controlled channels and, in particular, of the Sky News political editor, Adam Boulton.

Senior BBC journalists tend to resent Sky News. They know it is watched in newsrooms, political offices and businesses throughout the land. Producers at the corporation's 24-hour news station, Radio 5 Live, secretly prefer it to BBC News 24. At the Royal Television Society (RTS) awards in February, judges agreed.

Declaring Sky News to be the RTS News Channel of the Year, they called it "vibrant, innovative and frequently first with the news, adding: "The jury was impressed by its immediacy, impact and the variety of its coverage."

That provoked fury at the BBC, where the RTS prize is highly coveted. Peter Horrocks, the head of Television News, described the ceremony as "one of the grimmest nights in terms of BBC TV News performance". Leaked internal emails revealed that News 24 controller Kevin Bakhurst was furious, accusing rivals of conducting a vendetta.

"As you'll know, unfortunately we didn't win RTS News Channel of the Year," wrote Bakhurst. "The BBC did pretty badly across the board and this reflects the kind of attitude towards the BBC that quite a few of us experienced on the juries from other broadcasters."

Horrocks said it was "inexplicable, galling and hurtful" that BBC News 24 had not won Channel of the Year, "given the way we'd performed over the past 12 months, and the way the audience gap over Sky has grown".

His ratings claim was fair. Audience figures for the first six months of 2007 give BBC News 24 a clear lead over Sky News – an average share of 0.7 per cent in multi-channel homes against 0.51 per cent for its commercial rival. The gap was widened by Sky's withdrawal from the Virgin Media cable platform in February, but it has been trailing News 24 since December 2005.

Despite the ratings lead, some BBC insiders claim it was no accident that Marr used the phrase "first and frequently right" in his veiled criticism of Sky News. Some think this was a deliberate and sardonic comment on the RTS judges' verdict.

A Sky News spokesman declined to kill the controversy: "Sky News takes accuracy just as seriously as the BBC. We come from the same broadcasting culture. It just so happens that we are faster at bringing that accurate information to the viewer."

Another suggestion is that Marr was irritated by Boulton's behaviour when the Prime Minister revealed his decision not to call an election in an interview with Marr. Boulton's reporting that day did little to conceal his anger that Gordon Brown had handed a valuable exclusive to his rival. On air, he referred to Marr as "a journalist" and spat the phrase irritably. On his blog, he complained: "As I write in the gutter opposite No 10, the BBC's Andrew Marr is inside interviewing the Prime Minister."

It is easy to see why the pair might not adore each other. Boulton is as loyal to Sky as Marr is to the BBC. He started with the channel at its launch, joining from TV-am, and has been a constant presence for 18 years. He told the media interviewer David Rowan: "On the BBC... news is seen as a bridge between Neighbours and whatever comes next... We at Sky are mercifully free of the pressures of having inherited an accidental audience. We offer dedication to news."

Predicting the death of the BBC's main television news bulletins, Boulton added: "And here's a really arrogant claim. Andrew Marr would not exist if it wasn't for Adam Boulton. People may hate it, but the character political commentary that everyone competes with – we, I, was doing it first."

Marr understands the importance of on-screen personality. In his former role as the BBC's political editor, he learned to make his performances ooze charisma. Now, as presenter of his own show on BBC1, he is criticised for an excessively gentle interviewing technique.

Rightwingers say he is instinctively left-wing and cite in evidence his marriage to Guardian columnist Jackie Ashley, daughter of the Labour peer Jack Ashley. The same critics overlook Boulton's wedding in July 2006 to Anji Hunter, formerly Tony Blair's gatekeeper, at which the then prime minister and his New Labour elite were guests.

So were Marr's comments in the House of Lords intended as a retaliatory dig at Boulton? The BBC man did not return calls and Boulton was travelling to Uganda to cover the Heads of Commonwealth conference. However, friends deny that their rivalry is malicious.

A better explanation is that Marr was deployed to plead the BBC's case that it should be the first port of call for politicians seeking Westminster news and analysis. He is a trusted confidant of the corporation's top managers, and they fear the consequences for the licence fee if Sky News goes on gaining credibility. The problem is that nobody enhances Sky's reputation as much as Adam Boulton.

Tim Luckhurst is professor of journalism at the University of Kent

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