The British Academy TV awards may have brought some much-needed cheer to the comedy and soap divisions of the beleaguered BBC, but not, alas, to its mighty News Directorate. This year's News Award was bound to go to coverage of 11 September - probably the biggest TV news story in the medium's history. The BBC has by far the world's biggest news operation, and has made news the cornerstone of its claim to the licence fee. This was its moment to demonstrate that, whatever its failings elsewhere, its matchless mastery of news makes it unassailable.
The nation still turns to the BBC during times of crisis, and on 11 September its news programmes drew record audiences. Yet when the Bafta envelope was opened, the winner was . . . not the BBC, not even its cuts-ravaged terrestrial rival ITN (in spite of a fine performance on Channel 4 by Jon Snow), but Sky News, the tiny, shoestring service tagged on as an afterthought to Rupert Murdoch's mainly sport-and-movies satellite system. And the Bafta jurors' decision will have come as no surprise to anyone who was flipping channels on that September day.
The corporation's decision to rely on the gauche BBC News 24 through the afternoon, rather than bring out its big guns, was understandable: having launched a service criticised as unnecessary, it could hardly abandon it when its hour seemed at last to have arrived. But the lame operation could paint only a pallid and puny portrait of the great events. Sadly, when the flagship evening news bulletins and peak-time special finally left port, things didn't get much better. The BBC's famous faces fronted flat and pedestrian coverage, marked above all by banal writing, which failed miserably to rise to the occasion.
Meanwhile, Sky's audience (by 5pm, nearly four times as big as News 24's in digital homes) was being shown how it should be done. As if by magic, the best pictures, comments and ideas were being plucked from the ether and magisterially orchestrated into a seamless, confident and breathtakingly expert whole. If the New York fire department had been watching, hundreds of lives might have been saved, as Sky had demonstrated that the twin towers would fall before the firemen went in. Throughout, Sky's presenters maintained not only technical assurance, but the command of tone that eluded their BBC rivals. Even Sky's graphics easily outclassed the BBC's.
The outcome of this contest is no accident. The BBC's penchant for ratings-chasing pap has been attracting much attention. Less remarked has been the decline in quality of its supposedly serious output. Since commercial broadcasters were relieved by Margaret Thatcher of most of their public service obligations, the corporation has faced little challenge in current affairs, politics, arts, religion and so on. It has taken advantage of this near-monopoly to let quality slide, while it concentrates instead on its populist fare. News has remained the one area of serious programming still subject to genuine competition. On 11 September, the BBC and its viewers paid the price for its current priorities.