Has Greg Dyke goofed?

Media - Ian Hargreaves sees merit in the BBC's decision to move its news to 10pm

It was certainly sporting of ITN's website to offer us a poll on the BBC's decision to move its Nine O'clock News to 10pm, especially as the electronic ballot paper had a cross in the pro-BBC box as its default position. Those responsible were no doubt delighted that, despite this self-imposed disadvantage, 59 per cent of those who voted on the day of the decision said Greg Dyke had goofed.

I mention this factoid only because I cannot think of any other reason why the crowd who run ITV should be pleased with themselves.

These are the people who got fat and complacent in their oligopoly, failed to notice the arrival of the internet, blew their entry into digital television and then campaigned for the right to demolish one of their most successful brands - News at Ten. And finally, having got temporary permission to ban the bongs, they turned out not to have enough programmes to fill the gap, turning what was already a political disaster into a commercial fiasco.

Not that they stopped there. They then blustered against their regulator's unreasonable inclination to hold them to their contracts and bawled "see you in court", before caving in. The deal they got - a shorter News at Ten to return next year, on some, but not all, weekday evenings - will help no one.

Now the BBC has gatecrashed News at Ten's welcome home party. Those who think that Greg Dyke has reacted with hasty opportunism have two arguments on their side. The first is that a head-to-head TV news battle between the BBC and ITV will reduce choice, and so the number of people who watch any TV news. The BBC, it is said, should not be collaborating in such a weakening of our most influential news mass medium.

The second argument is that it is undignified for the director general of the BBC to announce in August an orderly, year-long transition to the vacated 10pm slot - all part of a careful strategy - only to declare six weeks later that he will do it within a fortnight, in response to ITV's confusion.

The first of these arguments may turn out to be true, though it is not certain. We know that except when there are big stories, news cannot compete for ratings with entertainment, so if both the Nine and Ten O'clock News run against soap operas or James Bond films, they do badly. Running against each other, they may, in aggregate, do better. After all, who, apart from professors of journalism and Millbank tyrants, wants to watch both?

The second point is just wrong. Although I consider myself a paid-up member of that small, secret society which thinks that my one-time colleague John Birt made the right strategic judgments at the BBC, it cannot be denied that there's a thrill in seeing someone at the top able to move boldly on instinct. Dyke may get it wrong. But surely, he has learned from ITV's error not to turn a schedule inside out before knowing what you plan to put in the Radio Times. We shall see.

The arguments in favour of the BBC move are powerful. Editorially, ten o'clock is a better time for British parliamentary and American stories, and because it gives an extra hour to reflect, without slipping out of prime time.

For the BBC, the new slot creates a cross-channel junction with Newsnight and creates a tidier berth for a late-evening Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish news bulletin. Nor can I shed any tears with those Panorama staff who are widely reported to be lamenting a move to Sunday evening - to my mind, an excellent spot to develop as a chill-out zone after the garage-beat monotony of weekend TV.

No, the real questions here aren't really about BBC v ITV - a sharpening of competitive edge is healthy, and fortunately, for all its abuse at the hands of ITV, ITN is certainly well capable of holding its own.

The more interesting issue is the way that the whole idea of "the news" - a fixed canon of half a dozen things all British citizens need to know each day - is crumbling in the face of rolling news on TV, radio and the internet.

Recent research from the grandly-titled Pew Research Center For The People and The Press, based in the US, shows that nearly as many Americans now get news regularly from the net as from television. For college graduates, TV runs a poor second.

In the last two years alone, the proportion of Americans tuning in regularly to Dan Rather, Peter Jennings and the rest of the network newsboys (and they are all boys) has fallen from 57 per cent to 51 per cent. And most of those still watching are women on the grey side of middle aged.

This, you may say, is only to be expected. But perhaps a little less obvious is the Pew's discovery that there is no comparable set of negatives for rolling news services such as CNN, for radio or for newspapers. The journalistic form most threatened by the internet is the half-hour television news bulletin in prime time.

American politicians, to judge by the vigour of the Gore and Bush campaigns online and their frequent intrusions into Oprah-land, are already well adapted to this fragmenting media landscape.

In Britain, the adrenaline of head-to-head competition at ten, as well as in the 6pm to 7pm zone - where the BBC's improved offering has been rewarded with better ratings this year - may obscure these trends for a while.

But make no mistake: we are witnessing The End of The News.

The author is professor of journalism at Cardiff University. The Pew's research is at www.people-press.org/media

This article first appeared in the 09 October 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Schools that teach children to lie