The broadcasters’ grim headlines are certainly reaching the public they are aimed at. In recent days, news audiences for coverage of the coronavirus have reached record levels. Sky News is claiming an increase in viewing of 70 per cent in a week, and the BBC’s television bulletins – which had been slowly declining over the years – have acquired renewed urgency. The News at Six is being watched each day by an average of 5.2m adults – an increase of 27 per cent on 2019. Online, the BBC’s number of page views more than doubled in seven days.
As we fear for the world and its people, there seems to be an ever-increasing hunger for trusted facts, which is reassuring for all who are alarmed by the hysteria and inaccurate information on social media. In these most challenging of times, public service broadcasting is being given a chance to show why it exists, and for the BBC in particular there is an opportunity to demonstrate to a sceptical government why a universally funded service retains its relevance.
“The scale of this crisis must surely prove that we still have a role,” says one editor. Another insider talks of a dawning realisation in parts of the Johnson administration that they need the BBC to get accurate information to the public. Ministers have started appearing once more on the Today programme. But nobody has any illusion that there is a great deal of love for the corporation in Downing Street, and the battle for its future has merely been postponed.
Fortunately, the BBC’s editorial coverage of the coronavirus has so far been strong. Amid a blizzard of information, its correspondents are measured and responsible. If we are to be plunged into months of nightmares, the health editor Hugh Pym is the figure of authority that you want as a guide through the story; similarly, the unflappable Fergus Walsh, who has built up credibility over many years as medical correspondent. That’s accompanied by the unmatched international range of the output. Tulip Mazumdar is impressive as the global health correspondent, along with reporters who know their patch such as Mark Lowen in Italy.
The corporation has only wavered when it has relied too heavily on its political teams. It was Sky’s political editor, Beth Rigby, who asked the chief medical officer in a news conference: “Can you level with us, and based on your graphs, say how many people do you think will actually die?” – which is both unanswerable and distasteful.
Yet all the Westminster correspondents tend to see the crisis through the prism of how Boris Johnson is handling it, rather than focusing on the audience’s interest in advice for themselves and their families. A political reporter is always on the alert for “gotcha” moments and U-turns, whereas members of the public may well give credit to officials who change their minds when new evidence demands it. The weaknesses demonstrated by coverage of Brexit and the 2019 general election – the preoccupation with process and personalities over policy – are still lurking.
But overall the BBC has rediscovered is its faith in experts, and its programmes have put a wide range of voices on the airwaves while shying away from needless controversialism. There has been a proper attempt to understand the government’s policy while injecting doses of scepticism. The big question remains, however, whether the public’s tolerance for the current measures will survive the dark days that lie ahead – and whether providing a platform for increasingly vocal dissenters will sour relations between broadcasters and the government. What matters is that the journalism remains vigorously independent.
However, the BBC’s top executives will not be able to put aside another worry: the future financing of the corporation. It has become directly related to the public health emergency. This week the BBC and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport issued a joint statement saying that the reintroduction of licence fee payments for over-75s, who are facing imminent self-isolation, would be delayed by two months. The corporation noted that “as the national broadcaster, the BBC has a vital role to play in supplying information to the public in the weeks and months ahead.”
But this gesture will cost the BBC £40m a month, at a time when some of its services are already imperilled. In other words, this is taking money away from the corporation when it needs it most.
That is why, within the vastly more important battle for the health of individuals and of the country, we need to keep an eye on Auntie too. This could be one of the BBC’s finest hours if it can help guide us through a period of crisis – and if it does, it will revitalise the case for preserving it at the heart of our national life.