Media Viewpoint: More news from the BBC

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The Independent Online
ALL organisations have to change; the news and current affairs services provided by the BBC are no exception. The debate during the internal process of reviewing the Charter has been about how we match the changing demands of the audience and the apparent extension of choice through the rapid proliferation of channels with our fundamental obligation as Britain's public service broadcaster.

We have had to examine how we can better use our skills and expertise to develop our services for the benefit of all our licence payers. We have had to ensure that we will provide those important services that a freer (but more commercial) broadcasting market will fail to deliver. And we have had to ask tough questions about how our news and current affairs programmes, while adapting to change, will contribute to diversity, range and searching journalism on our screens and airwaves.

We are going through a revolution in broadcast news. It is being driven by the expectations of the audience, concerned about and interested in the scale, sweep and speed of change in our own country, in Europe and throughout the world. Pro-democracy riots in Tiananmen Square, the end of Communism in eastern Europe, a war in the Gulf, the fall of Margaret Thatcher: all have created an appetite for news.

In this changing environment, the way forward for BBC News and Current Affairs is to provide the most authoritative, most wide-

ranging coverage of events at home and abroad in our existing news programmes. But we will adapt ourselves to the changing needs of our audience by providing news services that will extend the choice available to them.

We are already committed to launching a radio all-news network, accessible to everyone, building on the success of the experiments during the Gulf war and the general election. Research has shown that that is what our audience wants.

We are also seeking partners to run a rolling news service on satellite television, financed entirely from non-licence fee sources. Whoever we deal with, editorial control will rest wholly with the BBC. In November we plan a major overhaul of Ceefax to give a faster, fuller and more distinctive service.

It could be argued that the cable and satellite audience will be served well enough through the market-place by CNN and Sky News. But the BBC has unequalled resources to draw on: the specialist journalists, the regional news networks and the much admired World Service. We intend to exploit that unrivalled news-gathering and programme-making expertise to extend the choice on both radio and television to those who have an appetite for more.

One of the key aims of non-stop news will be to serve licence payers with a greater range of news and comment from around Britain. I know how people living outside the South-east resent the apparent metropolitan bias of many news judgements. But we will also report the world better, too, using the BBC's network of overseas correspondents.

In addition, we can offer live coverage of major national events and institutions such as the House of Commons, the House of Lords, parliamentary committees and the European Parliament. This will offer listeners and viewers a service of genuine breadth and diversity that will not be provided elsewhere.

As we begin to see the shape of schedules driven solely by the need to make money, it has become clearer just how the pressures on our competitors are going to affect the quality and range of their programming. Is there any role in prime time for current affairs on Channel 3? In the past year we have seen the near disappearance of business news from the ITV network, and now programmes with long and distinguished reputations, such as This Week and World In Action, seem set to disappear or be marginalised.

The distinctive service the BBC will be offering is clear. We have a commitment to use prime time for journalism that complements the news. We will ensure that the issues affecting the nation are analysed, explained and debated in a way that viewers and listeners find helpful and interesting. But we must also ensure that our weekly journalism is fresh, ahead of the agenda and tackling difficult issues. Others may be daunted by the cost and time needed to carry out such investigations. The BBC will be the guarantor that such stories are brought to public attention.

Tony Hall is Director of News and Current Affairs at the BBC.