Should the BBC merge its two news channels?
Former Head of BBC Television News Roger Mosey delves into the UK's most-watched news stream and whether it needs change under the new economic circumstances.
This article was originally published in Radio Times magazine.
The BBC News Channel – born a quarter of a century ago as BBC News 24 – is the most successful of the UK’s continuous TV news operations. While a lot of noise has been made by newcomers GB News and TalkTV, whose monthly audience hovers around two million, the BBC is way ahead with 12 million viewers – comfortably beating its longer-established competitor Sky News, too.
But change is afoot. For at least two decades, the corporation’s bean counters have had murderous intentions because the domestic channel runs in parallel with the commercially funded BBC World News – the international TV service. The question has been raised repeatedly: why can’t there be just one channel, thus halving the resources and getting rid of duplicate studios, presenters and producers?
If the answer were simple, the merger would have happened by now. But it’s not, because the two channels serve different purposes. One is for the UK and one is for global viewers – and they don’t want the same thing. Gas bills are big news here, but don’t matter in Singapore; and political crises in Washington will preoccupy viewers in America yet prompt yawns in Warrington.
The BBC’s financial crisis means it’ll now go for a solution it repeatedly rejected with a round-the-clock merger, and its staff are adamant this involves effectively closing the BBC News Channel. “I am just so angry,” says one journalist, while another talks of the “total demoralisation” of the newsroom. Job losses are inevitable, and strike action is being considered. The fear is that a service tailored for Britain will be replaced by the bland fare burbling away in international hotel rooms, including lots of half-hour shows to attract sponsorship from global businesses.
What will be lost are stories from the UK that would never make an item on World News – the tales from the nations and regions, the scrutiny of Parliament and devolved institutions and live coverage of events as they develop. The BBC management’s response is that it will retain the option of splitting off a domestic service when merited, but staff claim that there is no guidance on how often this might happen: will it be once a day or once a month? Even supporters of the idea acknowledge that getting a professional TV operation running at short notice is tricky.
The BBC is on stronger ground when it says that news consumption is changing, and many of us are happy with short clips on our phones or “live” pages on a website giving us the latest developments. But it underestimates the extent to which, on a major story such as the pandemic or a general election campaign, many still want a calm, familiar news anchor in place with a brief to make sense of what’s happening.
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Staff members believe the changes are being launched without a viable plan being shared with them – or, more importantly, with the public. This is crucial. The BBC has poor recent form on being open about its plans, and didn’t bother to put forward a representative on its own accountability programme Feedback to answer criticisms of the decision to close Radio 4 Extra. It must now explain how its proposals will meet the specific requirements for the News Channel set by Ofcom regulators.
These are not exactly quiet times for news, as we prepare for a new prime minister and the sharpest cost of living crisis in generations. BBC cutbacks are inevitable, given the tough licence-fee settlement imposed by the government, but the corporation needs to make a convincing case if it believes this is the right time to abandon the 24-hour TV news market to its competitors.
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