Rolling, but not rocking

'Dull' and 'outmoded', BBC News 24 is, critics say, an expensive folly. Vincent Graff meets the man who is trying to rescue the channel

Tuesday 25 November 2003 01:00

The man at BBC News 24 has inherited a broken channel - and he knows it. Mark Popescu, the editor of BBC News at Ten O'Clock who has been parachuted in to revamp the beleaguered rolling news network, uses lots of words to describe the station he found. Take your pick from the following, all of which pass his lips during our discussion: "a little bit dull", "outmoded", "there was a sense of lack of energy", "lack of urgency". For the sake of balance, it is only fair to record that Popescu also says News 24 has been "very credible" since its launch in 1997.

But you do not win many awards for being credible. Nor do you win a large number of viewers.

Whichever way you look at it, News 24's audience is lower than Sky News's. In the year so far, the average weekly reach figures - which show how many people tune in at least once, for three minutes or more - put Sky at 4.9 million and News 24 at 4.3 million.

The "share" figure - which also takes into account how long people watch - shows a starker gap: Sky News is nearly 40 per cent ahead of the BBC channel.

News 24 also has another, more political, problem: a critical Government-instigated report from the former Financial Times editor Richard Lambert, who declared that the BBC channel is not distinctive enough from its commercial rivals to justify its licence fee-funded existence.

Lambert also noted - correctly - that every newspaper office keeps its TVs tuned to Sky, which has a reputation for bringing the stories to screen before its rival.

Something had to be done. Hence the arrival of Popescu. That something happens next week. In comes a new set - lots of glass, a big new plasma screen, room for presenters to explain the news while standing up - and an injection of new technology.

But, new set aside, what is Popescu planning? His answer - couched in terms of technology, and how the BBC will improve its internal mechanisms - does not excite. But only he knows what difference will be seen on screen.

"I think if we can join together the richness of the BBC's resources, if we can get better at using the existing resources available at BBC Sport, the Business unit, and in the nations and regions, then we can have a much stronger proposition. If we can align our resources in a much better way we can make it a much more exciting news service, which also has the depth and the context."

News 24 was set up, says Popescu, partly because "the BBC is the largest news-gathering organization in the country" and it made sense "to give viewers the benefit of the work we are already doing".

But he admits that the channel costs a lot of money. Depending on your method of calculation, News 24 costs licence-fee payers between £24m and £50m a year.

So what does it provide that the rest of the market fails to? What will News 24 show that is not already available on Sky News, the ITV News Channel, CNN, Euronews, CNBC or Fox News - all of them available in the UK without licence-fee subsidy?

"Quite a lot," says Popescu, before lapsing back into a list of new gizmos - mobile phone cameras will be given to reporters - and declarations that the channel will be "more dynamic" and "inclusive".

But why provide what is already being provided elsewhere?

"What you are saying is 'well there is a newspaper that is jolly good and it has most of the stories in, so we [ought not to] offer [further] choice'."

No one is forced to buy newspapers, I respond.

"Yeah, it costs the BBC money, and a proportion of the licence fee pays for it, but News 24 also serves BBC1 on breaking stories. The expertise we have developed in breaking news is on BBC1 for 9/11, during the Iraq war, overnight..."

He also points to the fact that News 24 has beaten Sky to a number of stories recently: it got a live correspondent to the recent Istanbul attacks before its chief rival, and revealed Michael Howard's shadow cabinet reshuffle first too.

Popescu is honest about the task he faces. But he says the channel is already moving in the right direction. He admits: "I think that it had a difficult birth. It was unstable and may not have been thought through clearly enough.

"I am sure you will still find people in the BBC who are not sure of the point of it, but those people are pretty rare now."

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