On 8 February, a riot erupted in Cairo in which 40 football fans were killed after a clash with police. At 9pm that evening I turned on Al Jazeera, to see what they were making of it. The answer was a lot, and they cleared their schedule to tell it. Having carried a major – and in retrospect, prophetic – documentary about the simmering anger among excluded Zamalek fans just two days previously, they were well placed to tell us what this event might portend.
Over on the BBC's dedicated news channel – formerly known as BBC News 24 – the lead item at 9pm was pensioner bonds, followed at a quick trot by reports on Prince Charles's fogeyish thoughts about Islamist militancy; on the Ukraine; on hospital trust finances; on Labour promises and Tory rejoinders; and on Tony Abbott's shaky majority in the Australian parliament (all repeats of items much repeated throughout that day).
Then we joined a beaming Jane Hill on the red carpet at the Royal Opera House for a gushing 15-minute report on the BAFTA awards, after which a weather woman told us that the coming week would be "mostly dry, often cloudy"; more weather people then promised that they would be telling us what clothes we should wear. Then came a trail for Lucy Worsley's latest country-house frolic, then it was time for an "Our World" documentary repeated from the previous night. The Cairo riot did make it into the BBC's 10pm bulletin, but only after yet more repeats of the tired old repeats and in strikingly perfunctory form.
Parallel worlds? Well, the contrast between these treatments of an internationally significant event does say something about the broadcasters' priorities and about what they see as their function. And it puts a cruel gloss on the slogan with which the BBC likes to trumpet its bulletins: "Breaking news, developing stories." Not much breaking or developing here.
The kind of news we get from our major public service broadcaster has never mattered more than it does now, but print schedules ensure that TV critics – who must file their copy well in advance – never get the chance to comment on it; it just slides past beneath the radar.
I worked as a TV critic [on The Times] in the days when one filed one's copy at the end of the evening and could therefore routinely comment on news coverage: in a modest attempt to recover this facility, I've spent the past two months dunking myself in the rolling news of the BBC and its rivals. And since what BBC bosses like to differentiate as "news" and "current affairs" are really one and the same thing – what is a "fact" worth, when wrenched out of context? – I've included Newsnight in my anecdotal survey. I haven't watched everything – that way madness lies – but I have watched enough to reach some conclusions.
The first thing to say is that when a huge story breaks, BBC News has the resources to effortlessly trump its rivals and it did this brilliantly after the Charlie Hebdo massacre. The second is that in Dateline London it hosts the best weekly current affairs discussion in the business, and that its Hardtalk interviews can be models of forensic rigour.
But the uncomfortable truth is that the channel is crippled by its format, with fixed elements occupying an absurdly large proportion of every broadcast hour: five minutes' song-and-dance about the weather, for example, which can even invade the main bulletin if there's a bit of snow in Yorkshire. Further chunks of time are allotted to business affairs and – grotesquely inflated – to sport, where transfers, torn ligaments and tittle-tattle about managers are treated as if they were matters of global significance, rather than the manifestations of a global racket that they really are.
The two big slots allocated each night to The Papers raise different questions. Their guests don't analyse the rationale behind stories in the way Al Jazeera's Listening Post does, and they seldom comment on the right-wing agenda of much of the press. And given the profusion of intelligent commentary to be found on the net, it's strange the BBC should persist in privileging the old print media. As for the guests – why give established columnists and editors an additional platform, when you could as easily bring fresh voices into the debate? The cosy little journo-club just gets cosier. Most channels run such slots – it's the cheapest way of filling air-time – but it's low-rent stuff.
It's hard to know who BBC News is aimed at. Busy people who are getting dressed, eating, washing up, child-minding? People whose brains are so tired that they can only cope with sound-bites? The Business section seems designed for a quick check in a hotel room between meetings, but why waste air-time reporting market shifts when anybody interested carries an app for such information in their pocket? More serious is this section's built-in bias. Last year a report from the Cardiff School of Journalism observed that contributors to banking debates on Radio 4's Today in the wake of the 2008 bailouts were predominantly drawn from the ranks of the financiers responsible for that crisis. Although Euro-troubles and banking scandals have temporarily galvanised it, the same might be said of BBC News's business segment, whose guests are mostly CEOs and City analysts who won't rock the boat by questioning the status quo.
To spend any length of time with the BBC's rolling news is to be assailed, despite skilled presenters like Simon McCoy, by a terrible creeping blandness, because BBC News has its comfort zones where it dwells whenever possible. It likes to go big on anniversaries, and it loves an excuse to put on mourning garb – viz those soporific miles of First World War coverage last year and the wall-to-wall coverage of the Churchill commemoration. No matter that Channel 4 News had pointed out the oddity of commemorating a commemoration (rather than a birth or death) or that, at the start of Churchill week, Jeremy Paxman had revealed that the operators of those famously dipping cranes had had to be bribed. The BBC commentary sailed on regardless, always unctuously accompanied by "the iconic bowing of the cranes". ("Bribed" just wouldn't have sounded so good.) Anything with the words "Jolie", "Fry" or "Cumberbatch" attached merits reverential attention, and sob-stories – milked to the last drop – are a staple, as is the sort of shock-horror stuff which fills the Daily Mail. With BBC News we're infantilised in red-top land.
And we don't ask too many questions. Let one example stand for many: in the Breakfast Show on 31 January we were informed that the British Army had created a new propaganda unit designed to combat hostile tweets on social media. "Not necessarily accurate in factual terms," purred an academic in the studio approvingly, "but putting the best gloss on things." Er, what? Call me old-fashioned, but I'd have expected such institutionalisation of mendacity to raise a question or two. Alas, no: the programme glided quickly on to weightier matters, like chimps learning to speak with a Scottish accent and an army of giant rats marching on Swindon.
But the most serious weakness of BBC News is its parochialism. The Ukraine has rightly been much in the frame recently, as have – spasmodically – Syria and Iraq. But apart from such flashpoints, other countries tend to be noticed only when Britons or Hollywood celebrities are involved. Jeremy Bowen's impressive interview with President Assad last week was an all too rare instance of what the BBC News should be aiming to do all the time, but doesn't: the weekly Our World slot – just 24 minutes – is a pathetically inadequate response to the real world waiting to be reported on.
For that we have to go to Al Jazeera English, though the limitations of this channel, which is owned by the Qatari government, must be firmly borne in mind. Criticism of the Qatari royal family and government is taboo and Al Jazeera is strongly pressured not to carry critical coverage of the political and military movements, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, which Qatar supports. But this channel displays at every hour an admirable determination to present the rest of the world as it really is, through news reports and often brilliant documentaries.
It doesn't just swoop in and out in response to sudden spikes of drama or horror in Africa or the Middle East; it's there all the time, systematically reporting and explaining, and it can cast its net to parts of Latin America and South-East Asia which never make it on to a BBC bulletin. Environmental issues are its speciality: its recent six-part series The Slum – focusing on how the poorest exist in Manila – was unbearably moving to watch. Its three-part documentary World War One Through Arab Eyes – later weakly imitated by BBC News – offered a fascinating perspective on the First World War story. Last week's documentary on Iraqi cultural life before and after the West's two invasions was profoundly thought-provoking. As with BBC iplayer, these programmes are sitting there on the Al Jazeera website, available to be viewed.
Back at the BBC, Newsnight – still shaken after its annus horribilis with the Savile and McAlpine disasters, plus editorial bloodletting – is desperately in search of a viable identity. Time was when this was one of the BBC's go-to places for investigative work, but Channel 4 News, which has inherited two of its best reporters, is trumping it at present. Two other star reporters – Tim Whewell and Susan Watts – were unwisely made redundant by Ian Katz, the newspaperman brought in to turn Newsnight around: Mark Urban is one of the few resident specialists still possessing authority.
And though the programme has its small triumphs (like Emily Maitlis's "Bill Somebody" encounter with Ed Balls) and its flashes of documentary inspiration (like Monday's foray into a brain surgery unit), it produces very few scoops: it had one last week in Gabriel Gatehouse's revelations about the Maidan massacre in Kiev, but the only other in recent months was Sue Lloyd-Roberts's report on forced labour in Qatar. Instead, Newsnight gets by on a supercilious tone, studio discussions which are usually too short and a rather manic obsession with "presentation". The more complex the script, the more confusingly it's overlaid with graphs, graphics, music and hyperactive camera work: does nobody at Newsnight understand the concept of information-overload?
Evan Davis grilled Nigel Farage very efficiently last Thursday, but he often gives his interviewees too easy a ride, and who could forget the way he let Russell Brand walk all over him? The political coverage, meanwhile, tends towards a mixture of gossip and gimmickry: Maitlis's "election marathon" – running round northern cities with local runners, then having a few breathless words with them in a caff – is a waste of her talents and the programme's air-time. Some of the "intellectual" codas work nicely, but about others – like the egregious Will Self on the "existential significance" of the selfie-stick – the less said the better. Newsnight has developed its own curiously narcissistic brand of parochialism.
Two decades ago, investigative and foreign reports were the glory of BBC television. What has caused them to wither on the vine? Some producers and directors whom I have been quietly sounding out tell a story which I piece together thus...
Although nobody seriously disputes the truth of Andrew Gilligan's revelations about the Blair-Campbell "dodgy dossier", the BBC lost its nerve in the face of the subsequent Hutton Inquiry, and has kow-towed to government ever since; recent fiascos like the Russell Brand hoax have further weakened its will. It has become pathologically risk-averse and its managerial culture has changed accordingly.
The old relationship between journalists and editors has been supplanted: where editors once made the decisions and took the flak, now those decisions – on any project which might seem politically risky – are referred upwards to three shadowy 'advisory' groups known as EdPol (Editorial Policy), High Risk and Safety; projects which worry the bosses can be cancelled by invoking objections from these groups, whose only job is to keep the BBC out of trouble. Moreover, proper investigations require money and manpower, which is one more reason for dropping them; Panorama's funding and staffing is currently being cut to the bone. As one director put it to me: "The BBC has become frightened of its own journalists and sees them as the enemy."
But we desperately need them, because this malaise has spread across the whole television spectrum, with foreign stories becoming an endangered species. Channel 4's Dispatches does hardly any; Unreported World, which does do them, has no prime-time slot and its reports are just 26 minutes long. On ITV, the glory days of Granada's World in Action, Thames's This Week and Yorkshire TV's First Tuesday are long gone. ITV has started doing global reports again, but those are few and far between.
The BBC should aim to re-occupy the journalistic high ground. And it should remember what its responsibilities to its domestic viewers are, in this dangerously interconnected world. Are these things too much to hope for?
Formerly chief television critic at 'The Times', Michael Church reviews classical music and opera for 'The Independent'Reuse content