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25 October 2019

The BBC may not always know best, but let’s not forget it still plays a vital role

A recent report has been seized on to attack the BBC, but it is still a valued and valuable source of quality news.

By Stephen cushion

After Ofcom published its annual review of the BBC, including a special focus on news and current affairs, predictable headlines about the demise of public service broadcasting quickly ensued.

Once again, critics screamed, the Beeb was in existential crisis and immediate reform was needed to make it great again.

There are legitimate questions the BBC faces about ensuring it appeals to all age groups and in reflecting the whole of the UK. Questions are rightly being posed about how the corporation interprets impartiality and counters political disinformation.

Clearly, the BBC doesn’t always know best.

Like other broadcasters, it’s forging a new place and purpose in an increasingly crowded and complex media and political environment. After all, much of today’s news and information is largely unregulated and not subject to the obligations about accuracy or impartiality the corporation is bound by.

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Broadcasters, including the BBC, have to find a way of safeguarding their news standards while producing journalism that satisfies the needs of media savvy audiences.

But as the author of the study that Ofcom commissioned to review the BBC’s News and Current affairs output, I would say the picture is not as bleak as some headlines have painted.

Take BBC News online, which came under fire for its reliance on internal rather than external hyperlinks. There should rightly be some debate about both the amount and diversity of external hyperlinks on BBC News. Although the BBC’s use of hyperlinks was similar to many commercial online providers, as a public broadcaster it is held to a higher standard and has regulatory conditions attached to its licence.

But left out of many stories hammering BBC News was our study’s finding that showed the BBC’s internal hyperlinks differed from other commercial sites because they were often “explainers”, or more analytical forms of reporting that supplied useful context and analysis. In other words, with all its mighty resources the BBC might be criticised for being too self-centred in its online coverage, but the net result is a higher standard of journalism than many other providers.

More generally, our study found the UK’s overarching public service broadcasting ecology continues to shape an information environment where hard news remains high on the agenda.

Our content analysis of BBC and commercial news media examined 3,056 items across TV, radio, online, and news apps found that almost all BBC news outlets featured a relatively hard news agenda over the three-week sample, prominently reporting topics such as politics and international affairs. On the evening television news bulletins, only Channel 4 had a harder news agenda than the BBC News at Ten. Compared to sites such as the Daily Mail, Sun and Mirror, BBC News online featured a harder news agenda, challenging claims it has dumbed down content.

If we compare broadcast news output to the US, which is overwhelmingly driven by commercial needs rather than public service interest, it soon becomes apparent that the quality of journalism will quickly diminish if left to market forces. Studies have long shown the emphasis US broadcasters place on domestic soft news, such as celebrity and entrainment gossip, while largely ignoring events and issues around the world.

The UK’s nightly public service TV news bulletins, in this respect, stand out as being distinctively informative. In our study, most consistently provided a window on the world – prominently reporting civil unrest and crises in places like Sudan and Hong Kong – that many people would not know about if left to the UK’s market media to inform them.

Take Channel 5 news, which has comparatively limited resources to carry out its public service obligations. While more domestic-orientated than the other nightly bulletins, our study found it pursued a public interest agenda that included a comparatively high level of education and health coverage made relevant to audiences that are different to other broadcasters. As its editor told me in the Ofcom study, Channel 5 news works hard in explaining news to audiences that do not wake up to Today and go to bed after Newsnight.

Of course, with so much focus on the new digital media environment, it’s easy to forget “old” media like broadcasting. But a little-reported fact that came out of the Ofcom review was that 79 per cent of people continue to rely on TV news, a higher proportion than online and social media. While this figure fell to 51 per cent for 16-24 year olds, it still meant more than half of young people were turning on the TV or a tablet for their news.

Indeed, we often hear dramatic survey results about how people are turning away from mainstream media to online and social media for their news diet. But BBC news spreads like wildfire on social media platforms, meaning it may well be still informing many people about the world even though they may not have asked for it.

So, before we rush to judgment about the BBC or the future of public service broadcasting, let’s review all the evidence, and consider how and where journalism can be enhanced for public good. The BBC may not always know best, but like other public service broadcasters it still represents a vital part of the media ecology that should not be dismissed or neglected.