Tensions between BBC News and the bosses of BBC Television are nothing new. A former news executive recalls one scheduling row in the 1980s when a colleague “all but smashed into me shouting that he wanted his new comedy to start at 7pm and I had completely buggered that”. Television controllers have traditionally favoured drama and entertainment over news, and many at the BBC hated the impositions when John Birt was director general and serious-minded news and current affairs programmes were created all over the schedule. But now the pendulum is swinging in the opposite direction.
The decision causing the deepest resentment in the newsroom is the cut to the running time of the BBC News at Ten. It’s only three years since the BBC issued a news release proclaiming its extension, designed to give “even more news analysis and explanation” and to “help to make sense of the changing world around us”. The regional news was expanded too, with its controller explaining that “through research, our audience has told us they want more from our evening news service”. The BBC has offered no evidence that viewers have changed their mind about this, but the axe is falling: five minutes off the network news, and a cut in the regional news from 11 minutes to seven. This has prompted seething resentment from news producers, with leading correspondents writing to the DG in protest.
The executive behind the cutback is Charlotte Moore, the BBC’s director of content and controller of BBC One, who wants to start her late-night schedule at 10.35pm rather than 10.45pm. She is doing it for what ostensibly are very good reasons. The BBC has woken up to the existential crisis it may face because of the desertion of younger audiences. The statistics are alarming. In recent years the amount of time young people spend with the BBC has fallen by a third from 11.5 hours a week to 7.5, while Netflix is far more popular than the BBC iPlayer. There is a similar pull from YouTube and Spotify. Moore is therefore urgently seeking young audiences, and she is planning to run a BBC Three zone from Monday to Wednesday – in tacit recognition that the scrapping of BBC Three as a youth-oriented TV channel in 2016 was a bad idea. This quest for young audiences is apparent everywhere. The job ad for the next controller of Radio 4 emphasises that he or she must “grow the new and younger audiences within an increasingly competitive environment”.
Yet this has not stopped the harrumphing from the leading lights of BBC News, past and present. “What on earth makes them think that the young audience will be lining up after the news at 10.35pm and yet they wouldn’t be there at 10.45pm?” asks one former member of the executive. There is also scepticism about whether a late-night programming block will make much difference when the peak-time BBC One schedule is so attractive to the elderly. Most of all, they question the need to act now – with the schedule change coming into effect on 4 March, the month in which the UK is supposed to leave the European Union.
That points to the wider challenge. BBC One has not distinguished itself through the Brexit process. In the past, the main channel gave airtime to current affairs specials on major themes from Northern Ireland to 9/11 and the Iraq War – yet it has failed in its 7-10pm slots to get to grips with the biggest political crisis in generations. BBC Two’s excellent Inside Europe series showed the benefits to be had from investment in the story, and Radio 4 has also been more enterprising with programmes such as Brexit: A Guide for the Perplexed. But Channel 4 grabbed the agenda with its referendum drama, Brexit: The Uncivil War, written by James Graham.
BBC Television’s weakness is compounded by eccentric decisions. Veterans and current news staff alike were dismayed when BBC One decided to stick with extra time for a third-round FA Cup match in a half-empty stadium rather than go to the News at Ten on the day of Labour’s no-confidence motion in the government.
A senior editor, responding to a suggestion that news appears in retreat within the BBC, says “I can’t disagree”. The Andrew Marr Show continues to languish in a 10am slot on Sunday mornings. And there was more bad news for politics junkies – who recently lost Sunday Politics – when the BBC announced that Andrew Neil’s departure from This Week would mean the end of the programme. “We couldn’t imagine This Week without the inimitable Andrew Neil,” said the BBC’s director of news, Fran Unsworth, in one of her least convincing statements.
It is, of course, necessary for the BBC to save money – especially after the consultation on free licence fees for the over-75s revealed more opposition to scrapping the concession than it expected. But it’s not unreasonable to think that This Week is a more important public service commitment than the large pile of entertainment disasters that the BBC has transmitted in recent times – from the execrable For Facts Sake with Brendan O’Carroll of Mrs Brown’s Boys to Wedding Day Winners and Len Goodman’s Partners in Rhyme – all of which managed to be losers in ratings and critical reaction.
What we’re left with, then, is another act of British barminess to fit with our declining international reputation. At a time when the biggest decisions in our lifetimes are being made and when politics matters more than ever, our leading public service broadcaster has decided to cut back on news and political programming. It is doing so by creating a false choice between serious news and youth-oriented shows when it has resources and airtime to do both – and when that is what audiences have a right to expect.
Roger Mosey is the Master of Selwyn College, Cambridge, and a former head of BBC Television News
This article appears in the 20 Feb 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The last days of Islamic State