Must we have our news at 10?

Debate: A journalist and a politician mull over the future of the BBC
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The Independent Online

Jeremy Thompson: 'What we see with the BBC and ITN is a scheduling war between two terrestrial dinosaurs'

Jeremy Thompson: 'What we see with the BBC and ITN is a scheduling war between two terrestrial dinosaurs'

Peter Ainsworth: 'The question is, should we pay a licence fee for the BBC to act like a commercial station?


JTThe truth is, the number of people who wish to watch traditional news bulletins is declining. The old-style, one-off "appointment-to-view" format is growing old with its audience. At Sky we're trying to show that you can present rolling news and make it accessible to everyone. We want to appeal to those people who are going to miss the Nine O'Clock News. When they turn to us to fill that hole in their viewing lives we will be introducing them to a new form of television news. Instead of a limited appointment to view they will be able to carry on as the news develops, and will learn that good-quality news is available throughout the day.

PA I applaud the way that Sky has increased choice, and I welcome the advent of other 24-hour commercial news services, like ITN's, which will increase it further. But it's not just choice that's growing, it's competition between broadcasters. This should be beneficial, but it is important that television companies compete on equal terms. This is where questions about what the BBC is up to come in.

Unlike the Government, I accept that politicians should not seek to influence the scheduling of commercial news bulletins. Frankly, it's none of our business. The audience for terrestrial news bulletins has fallen steadily for the past five years, and it's up to TV companies, and the independent regulator, to decide how to react to this trend.

JT But surely flexibility is what matters. We have a nine o'clock news and a news at 10. The BBC stops when the programme slot is over. We carry on. If there's a vital vote in the Commons or a crucial statement by the PM, we'll stay with it. But it's also a rolling programme of record. Last week, after the events in Ramallah, we had Tony Blair live, we had Ehud Barak, we had Shimon Peres and we had Bill Clinton live. You didn't have to wait until the end of the day and see them in a cut-down version.

People turn to us when there's a big, running story. During the fuel crisis, Sky viewing increased by an average of 400 per cent. It went up from a norm of 100,000 at any one time during the day, to a peak of 500,000. We beat BBC News 24 by two to one - and our figures were on average 10 times higher than for ITN's news channel. Our overall daily viewing figures during a crisis are up to between 2 and 3 million. There's a huge market out there that traditional broadcasters aren't meeting.

PA But the BBC is a special case. First, it is funded by the licence fee and, second, it operates under a royal charter approved by Parliament. As part of its public service remit, the BBC is required to maximise the audience for its news service. Only last July, Sir Christopher Bland assured a select committee that the BBC would move a news programme only if it thought the audience for news would be greater as a result. So how come this sudden decision to schedule its main bulletin at 10pm from next week?

There are around 3 million fewer people available to view at 10pm than at 9pm. The reality is that the BBC's move is not about news, but about competing for non-news viewers at prime time. If anyone doubts this, take a look at what BBC1 has in store between 7pm and 10pm next week: soaps, comedies, lifestyle, American films and chat shows. No art, no current affairs, no documentaries, no religion. It's all good family entertainment, and any commercial company would be proud of it. The question is whether we pay our licence fee for the BBC to behave like a commercial station.

JT What we are seeing with the BBC and ITN is a scheduling war between two terrestrial dinosaurs. Their approach is a thing of the past. They have already admitted that the future lies with rolling news. In the transition period, we're very happy to provide a home for traditional terrestrial viewers. But cable and satellite are the future. It's all about choice. Politicians - especially Tories like Mr Ainsworth - should welcome choice and not seek to restrict it.

Having 24-hour news has changed the political landscape and the political perspective. Politicians have craftily learnt to use and exploit the new media. We'll notice that particularly at election time, as issues and policies unfold during the day rather than at pre-scheduled moments which suit party bosses.

PA I don't know why Jeremy thinks I want to restrict choice. I don't. The time when politicians and committees of the great and good could sit in judgement over what the public was allowed to watch may not quite be over, but it's on the way out. Multichannel and digital technology is handing power to viewers. Of course, somebody needs to keep a firm eye on offensive material and bias. Viewers, though, are voting with their zappers and it would be a foolish politician who tried to stand in their way.

The BBC will argue that its other channels do, and will, provide the sort of programming that public service broadcasting is all about. Fair enough, but it is hard not to notice that as far as its leading channel is concerned, news and current affairs are being pushed to the margins. I suppose Jeremy can take some comfort from the fact that one long-term effect of the latest changes may be to speed up the migration to digital 24-hour news services. Even here, though, the licence fee has been put to busy use, and BBC News 24 stands ready to benefit from the decline of appointment-to-view news.

JT We welcome the competition.


Peter Ainsworth MP is the Conservative spokesman for culture, heritage and the media. Jeremy Thompson, a veteran foreign correspondent, presents the 9pm bulletin on Sky News.