The BBC without news is nothing

'I learned at the BBC what Greg Dyke should remember now: that journalism is too important to be left to impresarios'
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The Independent Online

Let's play musical News. I am sitting here waiting for the announcement that ITV are going to change the time of their nightly news bulletins from 11 to ten o'clock, and that they will do it by nine o'clock this evening. That way they will beat the BBC, who yesterday abruptly announced that their Nine would become the Ten, not sometime in the next few months when they've had a nice redesign, but in just 13 days on 16 October.

Let's play musical News. I am sitting here waiting for the announcement that ITV are going to change the time of their nightly news bulletins from 11 to ten o'clock, and that they will do it by nine o'clock this evening. That way they will beat the BBC, who yesterday abruptly announced that their Nine would become the Ten, not sometime in the next few months when they've had a nice redesign, but in just 13 days on 16 October.

Usually BBC decisions progress towards implementation preceded by a man with a red flag. So why the indecent speed? It's particularly odd since it was only a couple of months ago that I was gently reprimanded by Mark Thompson, Greg Dyke's number two, for having got my journalistic knickers in an unnecessary twist about the scheduling of programmes such as the News, Panorama and Newsnight. This was a sideshow, he suggested, a diversion from the main issues to do with the future of broadcasting. Some bloody sideshow this has turned out to be, with BBC execs rushing hither and yon to ensure that their Ten appears before ITV's returns. Clearly the issue isn't quite as arcane as we have been led to believe.

I know why it matters to me. We have a famously partisan press in this country. Many newspapers print what serves their editorial line and - where they can - ignore or underplay stories that contradict that line. What has made this collection of biases democratically tolerable has been the existence of impartial, well-resourced and well-consumed radio and television news and current affairs.

So the more people watch, or listen to, the news, the better it is for Britain. When ITV announced two years ago that News at Ten (Trevor McDonald's old gaff) was being abolished it assured its regulators and the public that (a) there would not be any drop in numbers viewing a late-night news bulletin, and (b) that the new slot would be enormously beneficial to the new 11 o'clock News, because it could cover more late parliamentary votes and more American news. Viewing figures, of course, fell substantially, and I've no idea what happened to the US stuff.

Now the self-same arguments are being deployed by the BBC: Ten is a better time for the Nine. More American stories, more divisions, the whole shtick. And viewing figures will go up or remain the same or not fall any faster than they would have fallen in any case. Promise. Cross my heart and hope you'll forget I said all this.

Well, I do not buy any of the "it's all for your own good" stuff. I think audiences will fall. Besides, behind the scenes the talk is not of an enhanced bulletin but of "freeing up the nine o'clock slot". This is really about competition for ratings in the short term, and re-defining BBC1 as a populist channel in the medium term. Which is why next week will see the final Monday Panorama after 45 years. After that it shifts to 10.15pm on Sunday, into what used to be the late-night God slot, before religion got shifted till it was the middle-of-the-night God slot.

The BBC's line is that the Panorama audience is "more likely" to tune in on Sunday night. I doubt it. I am told that the Sunday night slot was chosen because the BBC governors refused to allow Panorama (which had to be moved from its ten o'clock position) to be cut from 40 minutes to 30, and the executives responded by saying that you could not schedule such an awkward length any earlier. In fact, the Antiques Roadshow runs at 45 minutes on Sunday.

The entertainment under-bosses at the BBC have always under-estimated the importance of their own news and current affairs, seeing such dour factual stuff as an anchor drag on their gaudy barge. They hardly recall who broke stories about BSE or Aids. When I was a minor exec, they tried to discourage Panorama from exposing Terry Venables (then a BBC commentator), put us under pressure to drop a story about the dangers of stage hypnotism, because BBC1 was trying to negotiate a deal with Paul McKenna (then at the mercifully brief zenith of his career). I learned then what Greg Dyke should remember now: that journalism is too important to be left to impresarios.

This bias against seriousness extends throughout the BBC. A fortnight ago I found myself sharing a soufflé with a very bright young woman who had recently moved from industry to join one of those strategic bits of the BBC that everyone thought Dyke had abolished. I gently asked her what she thought the BBC should do more of and less of. She wanted more drama. She wanted the money to come from current affairs. She didn't want less cookery, or less makeover, or less docu-soap, or fewer sodding vets. This week (in case she's reading this) there will be four current affairs shows on BBC TV post 6pm (one a special at 11pm on Sunday). There will be 14 lifestyle programmes, including four on cookery on BBC2 alone.

Across the table my partner (who works on Panorama) was being told by another senior BBC figure that Louis Theroux (he of Weird Weekends) should present her show. That would give it a bit of oomph, he implied. This week's programme is "Who Bombed Omagh?" with award-winning reporter John Ware. I think Louis himself might agree his brand of faux-naïveté could come unstuck when quizzing supporters of the Real IRA.

I'm saying all this to illustrate the psychology of some (not all) at the Beeb. And, of course, in a few years' time the schedule will be much less relevant as people construct their own viewing menus. But that is in a few years' time, not now. At the moment scheduling does matter. What the BBC appears to be doing, therefore, is setting down what it thinks is important about itself. My worry is that it plans to ghettoise anything demanding or difficult or not immediately diverting. It is almost as if it is preparing for the day when the licence fee disappears and it finds itself head-to-head with its commercial competitors.

I don't argue for the status quo at all costs. Nor are the News and Panorama the only programmes of concern - they're just what I know about. What terrifies me is the lack of a constituency for seriousness within the BBC. Where is the pride in Panorama or Newsnight? Where is the ownership? Sure, it's hard doing the right thing these days. The fashionable plaudits go to the creators of Big Brother and Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?, not shows that mightwarn us about the next BSE or Aids.

But it's what the BBC is for. Yet what I think I hear is the swishing of fig-leaves (we're better than ITV, we put on Walking With Dinosaurs, ten o'clock is a great time for news from New York etc). These are, I fear, fig-leaves - uniquely - that disguise not the presence but the absence of balls.

David.Aaronovitch@btinternet.com

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