Five Live - It's Radio Bloke from the BBC

A member of Five Live's launch team worries that a station which started out as a news pioneer is becoming just a populist, lavishly funded competitor to commercial chat radio
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The Independent Online

When the new financial year begins in April, two long-running shows will disappear from BBC Radio Five Live. Euro News, first broadcast when the station was launched in 1994, will be abolished along with the weekend obituary show Brief Lives. Up to six journalists' jobs will go, but a BBC spokesman says "These cuts are unrelated to any overspend."

Unusually in a corporation groaning under a parsimonious licence fee settlement, that argument is broadly accepted by journalists. They perceive a bigger threat than budget trimming to the reputation of the award- winning news and sport network. "Five Live has undergone an internal revolution," says an insider "It is no longer a news station. Managers define it as 'sport and talk'."

One BBC producer says: "I can list correspondents who have not appeared on Five Live for a year. It is not on their radar. Many programmes have abandoned serious news."

Another journalist complains: "Listening to the banter that has replaced current affairs, it is hard to remember that it was launched by a former editor of the Today programme [Jenny Abramsky]. It has repositioned itself as entertainment."

The change has not been a ratings disaster. The station was a big loser in last October's Rajar figures - down 5 per cent to a weekly reach of 5.75 million listeners. But February's figures revealed improvement, with the audience rising to 5.85 million - below the peak of 6.65 million during the 2002 World Cup but still respectable. The breakfast pairing of presenters Nicky Campbell and Shelagh Fogarty proved particularly popular, adding 130,000 listeners.

But, as a member of the launch team that designed Five Live's programmes, appointed its presenters and recruited its journalists, I am alarmed by its strategic direction. The programming that made it intelligent is being abandoned in favour of relentless live broadcasting. Much of what is now categorised as news is really gossip. Accessible journalism has ceded ground to condescending populism.

Five Live controller Bob Shennan agrees much has changed: "When Five Live launched, it was the only rolling news service on the BBC. The development of rolling news on other outlets has forced us to evolve and that has had an impact on the threshold for news stories."

That understates the change. At launch, one key principle made Five Live a winner. "News priority" meant a reporter with a story had to offer it to the rolling channel first. The BBC wanted its baby to make an impact; news priority guaranteed it.

Now BBC correspondents must file a generic piece for all outlets and television takes priority. But Mr Shennan denies that losing news priority has reduced his station's credibility. He regards reluctance to interrupt discussion programmes with minor stories as a sign of maturity. He insists Five Live remains determined to pursue its founding ambition to broaden the BBC's news agenda by covering stories other outlets ignore.

"Our programmes cover many issues that are not on the BBC's news-gathering diary. That is why sport is so crucial: it brings in an audience that does not automatically listen to news. But Five Live has never been about handing down tablets of stone with 'news' written on them. It was launched to provide news relevant to the people it serves."

Mr Shennan accuses a previous generation of BBC journalists of importing a "straightforward corporate news mentality" to the network. "Five Live remains the home of news when something significant happens. Take 7/7: there has never been a finer example of continuous news coverage and the Five Live journalists who provided it are entitled to feel intensely proud. But from the early days, this station had a dilemma about what to transmit when there is no continuous breaking story. That's why there has been a shift towards programmes with a clear remit."

He is referring to shows like the listener-led morning phone-in, currently presented by former Radio 1 controller Matthew Bannister, and the afternoon programme hosted by ex-Radio 1 DJ Simon Mayo. Many BBC journalists regard these as incontrovertible evidence of the drift away from hard news. Mr Shennan defends the shows as outlets for "news that evolves from our close, democratic and informal relationship with our audience".

Loyalists cite as an example the case of Rick Costello, a terminal cancer sufferer who raised the issue of winter fuel payments for cancer patients on Five Live Breakfast. His story was widely picked up and he was soon debating the issue with the relevant minister. Others point to the attention drawn to the collapse of the Farepak Christmas hamper scheme by text messages to the Drivetime show.

Mr Shennan considers such user-generated stories excellent examples of a new philosophy. No longer content to tell its audience what to think, Five Live has chosen to listen instead. The approach raises profound questions about what public-service news provision now means, and though Five Live is boldly crawling towards a definition, there are obvious pitfalls.

It is not credible for a BBC executive to imply he has surrendered control over content. Distinguishing between popularity and populism is notoriously difficult and the corporation's entire editorial hierarchy exists to prevent mistakes. Unregulated user-generated news throws up minor horrors such as unsubstantiated rumour, and enormous ones like racism and the naming of alleged paedophiles. Five Live will not broadcast them.

What that leaves is a service which, far from being unique, partially replicates the tone of mass-market papers but lacks their killer instinct. To my ear, Five Live already sounds too much like neutered populism. I do not doubt it can attract listeners. My qualm is that it is pursuing a strategy that will render it indistinguishable from commercial chat radio. What will the new BBC Trust make of a station that sounds increasingly like the advertising-funded TalkSport (which recently broke Five Live's match-day monopoly on Premier League football)? A truly independent regulator would question the legitimacy of funding it from a universal licence fee.

The jibe that Five Live would become "Radio Bloke" infuriated the team who created it. Our aim was to make serious news accessible and create a station that sounded as if it were broadcast from an airship hovering above Britain - not from speech radio's traditional metropolitan territory.

Mr Shennan's cheerful populism is misguided. When Five Live moves to Salford Quays, as director-general Mark Thompson insists must happen, it will no longer be possible to pretend the station is part of the BBC News apparatus. Its present home in an obscure corner of the BBC newsroom will be demolished and correspondents who feel ignored by it now will willingly forget it completely.

There were not a few journalists at the station who hoped the licence fee cloud might have a silver lining. Their director -general had threatened to call off the Manchester move if the Chancellor did not meet his demands. Five Live journalists dared to hope he meant it. But Mr Thompson reviewed the costs and decided moving was cheaper than building new premises in London. That volte-face risks accelerating Five Live's decline from news pioneer to bounteously funded competitor for commercial chat radio.

Tim Luckhurst was an assistant editor at the launch of Five Live. He led the team that won the 1995 Sony Gold Award for Best Response to a News Event.