So it's goodnight from News at Ten

Television, like society, is fragmenting. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with that

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Heaven help he who dares to meddle with the viewing and listening habits of what we must call the British intelligentsia. A twitch of the schedules on Radio 4 and all hell breaks loose. Transfer
Match of the Day with its refound chic from the BBC to ITV, and a nation plunges into anguished introspection. Never, though, was there such a fuss over a listed broadcasting monument as the seven-year saga of the
News at Ten. And never, surely, has there been such a miserable outcome.

Heaven help he who dares to meddle with the viewing and listening habits of what we must call the British intelligentsia. A twitch of the schedules on Radio 4 and all hell breaks loose. Transfer Match of the Day with its refound chic from the BBC to ITV, and a nation plunges into anguished introspection. Never, though, was there such a fuss over a listed broadcasting monument as the seven-year saga of the News at Ten. And never, surely, has there been such a miserable outcome.

Why is it we get so worked up over a topic which anywhere else would be confined to celebrity-page gossip about the fate of the various newsreaders?

Perhaps the debate reflects a subconscious national conviction. Britain may have lost an empire, its car industry may have collapsed, the French may trounce us at our favourite sport - but we still enjoy the best broadcasting in theworld. How many travellers return to tell the tale: "America is wonderful, darling, so exciting, but the television is simply dreadful. I don't know what I would havedone but for those BBC drama series on PBS."

Now I have my doubts about this presumed relative excellence, not to mention the even loftier argument that the loss of the old News at Ten has struck at the very functioning of our democracy.

Surely, the sad marginalisation of Parliament owes rather more to the absence of a separation of powers in Britain's constitution, and the determination of the Government to bypass the institution at every opportunity, than to the fact that News at Ten is no longer around to inject the results of important Westminster votes into the post-prandial musings of the chattering classes.

And, I might add, when was the last time there was a vote in Parliament which, given Labour's behemoth-like majority, was not a foregone conclusion?

Parliament's decline is moreover surely part and parcel of a wider decline of news - at least of news in the old-fashioned sense of politics and public policy that once was the meat of News at Ten.

Blame the fragmentation of society, the internet - even that trusty standby, the end of the Cold War, and the removal of an existential threat to the country. Whatever the reason, these days hard news matters less.

Nor does it greatly matter whether Sir Trevor McDonald returns to the ramparts; whether there are bongs or no bongs; whether the show runs 20, 30 or40 minutes - even whether it is News at Eight, Nine, Ten or Eleven; all this, it seems to me, missesthe point.

What matters, if you wantpeople to watch news on general interest channels, is to run the news at a fixed time, day in and day out. When people know automatically when the news is on, they are more likely to watch it - and news, in that strange way it has,will tend to accrete around the programme, enhancing its perceived importance. Of course, every country is different. ITV's unhappy rejig was modelled on the American networks which run their main national nightly news at 6 or 6.30pm on the East Coast, and show a brief digest much later.

The French do it at 8pm (both major public channels, too, a fact which may interest those worried about the BBC and ITV now going head-to-head at 10). Likewise the Italians. In Germany, on the other hand, you will find the news as decentralised as the country's constitution: surf the broadcast channels at any time between 5pm and midnight and somewhere a Heute or a Tagesschau will be on the air.

The exact opposite was the old Soviet Union, that ultimate in centralisation - whose main evening news, Vremya, ran at 9pm. It was the voice of the party/state and the next day's newspapers, offering mendacious propaganda, rosy statistics about the Soviet grain harvest, but also the first, however elliptical, official word of monster stories like Chernobyl.

Now heaven forbid that news on BBC or ITV should resemble Vremya - except in one thing: the absolute immutability of its timing. And here ITV, trapped between the ITC and the chattering classes, has blundered. It has achieved the worst of all worlds: not the old News at Ten but a wretched imitation which will not bear the hallowed name, which will run four nights a week at best, sometimes just three. Why should anyone watch at all?

Far better to have taken the bull by the horns. The simple fact is that the era of News at Ten is over.

The inconvenient truth even now is that more people watch the early evening news than any other; nor is there less news around overall. Three existing 24-hour news channels will soon be joined by a fourth; the internet proliferates. Television, like society, is fragmenting, and there is nothing intrinsically wrong with that. If a regulatory agency has a purpose, it should be to keep obscenity and excessive violence off the airwaves - not to lay down exactly when one channel, which is not publicly funded and whose overall audience share is inevitably declining as its competitors multiply, should schedule its news bulletins.

Let us mourn News at Ten, not resurrect it. Let us find for it a small corner in that crowded pantheon of lost British institutions which includes the Indian civil service, Morris cars and Stanley Matthews. Let it bask like them in the soft, uncritical glow of legend. Then we will be able to bore our children with stories of the wonder they were too young to know, rather have them think that a substandard imitation is the real thing.

r.cornwell@independent.co.uk

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