Could the challenge from ITV be just what the BBC needs?

Tom Bradby’s “bloke in the pub” act may grate, but there is no reason for the BBC to be mean-spirited about a spot of competition - it may even be a good thing.

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The news is the news. For some months there has been an intense battle each weekday night at ten o’clock between the main television channels for viewers and for journalistic bragging rights to their flagship bulletins – with the BBC’s stately galleon under fire from ITV’s relaunched cruiser. The declaration of war began when Tom Bradby became the presenter of a new-look ITV News at Ten, and lustily engaged in a propaganda scrap with his rival Huw Edwards. The Culture Secretary, John Whittingdale, lobbed an extra cannonball at the BBC by suggesting it should move its bulletin from 10pm to allow ITV a clear run; and ITV raided the corporation’s crew, with first Robert Peston (the former BBC economics editor) and then Newsnight’s Allegra Stratton moving over to the other side.

So, who is winning? In crude viewing figures, the average so far in 2016 is not much different from the previous year, with 4.6 million for the BBC and 1.9 million for ITV. Both have claimed increases, but I think we have enough evidence that ITV’s relaunch has not been transformative. The BBC is also adamant that the recent extension to its ten o’clock news has not damaged BBC2’s Newsnight, though voices in the corporation murmur that some members of management would not weep if Newsnight were to fade gently away. The other problem is that the extended news slot on BBC1 pushes Question Time and This Week to later timings – when the public-service commitment should be to move current affairs to greater prominence on BBC1.

In the BBC presenter’s chair, Huw Edwards is in his 14th year (declaration of interest: I appointed him) and he has seen off a coachload of rivals. Bradby was, for me, an odd choice as his latest challenger. ITV’s Mark Austin is the Royal Television Society’s reigning news presenter of the year, and the channel has strength in depth – especially with Julie Etchingham. Bradby doesn’t yet have the presenter skills of either, and a show built around Etchingham would have been a powerful contrast with the BBC. One of the selling points of the ITV bulletin is supposed to be Bradby’s scripting: a direct, conversational style laced with opinion that wouldn’t get past the BBC’s editorial police. At first I rather liked its freshness, but there are only so many times you can start a programme by saying, “Imagine what it’s like to be on a boat in the middle of the Mediterranean,” or whatever is the story of the day. The Bradby on-air persona can feel like the bloke who corners you in the pub and is a bit too pleased with himself.

Of the supporting journalistic teams, the BBC inevitably wins on size and often on quality. Its overseas reporting is strong, as it should be from a global organisation. The corporation cannot be beaten on range and reliability. But the more intriguing contest is on home territory, and especially at Westminster.

Laura Kuenssberg has taken over from Nick Robinson at the BBC, and Robert Peston has replaced Bradby as political editor at ITV in a signing with all the hype of the football transfer window. Kuenssberg is a very good interviewer and she’s to be admired for her bold questioning, such as being borderline rude to the Chinese president. She has also proven over the years that she’s a rapid interpreter of day-to-day political tactics. However, she hasn’t yet shown that she has the ability to paint the big picture that the Ten requires. In common with many others, she has struggled with the Corbyn phenomenon. Branding his reshuffle a pantomime (without attribution) was ill-judged; and she underestimated what correspondents on the Times, the Spectator and the New Statesman saw as political gains for the Labour leader.

So far, Peston has looked a little forlorn on ITV; but if he hits his stride and the chemistry with Bradby develops, he has the ability to be a compelling analyst and a provider of scoops.

More generally, ITV can be stronger at storytelling. Its use of pictures was better than the BBC’s in my day, and it still is. ITV’s Richard Edgar was more effective on last week’s market crash by telling the events straight and not, as the BBC did, shoehorning in the next day’s story on business and the EU. Earlier in the month the BBC went doolally about David Bowie with three packaged reports and a live interview – which ran considerably longer than the equally effective ITV sequence. The problem isn’t necessarily the BBC doing half the programme on a great artist, but more that it seldom shows such ambition on a big day for the global economy or the latest development in the refugee crisis. Too often a lead story is merely a workmanlike package followed by a live interview with a correspondent that adds little. It would be good for viewers if the extended time slot led to a quest for more insight, rather than squeezing in another couple of court reports.

Yet it would be wrong to be curmudgeonly. The outcome is that audiences will benefit, because both channels are in the fight: more space for the flagship bulletin on the BBC, and a renewed commitment to news by ITV, which had previously treated it with careless neglect. We should celebrate bigger audiences for news when most TV ratings are declining. I’d predict with certainty that the BBC will remain the ratings leader for as far ahead as we can see, and for ITV it’s going to be a long haul to restore its past glories. But it is right for the commercial channel to make some noise about its journalism and not to let the corporation crowd out the rest of the market. There is no reason for the BBC to be mean-spirited about a spot of competition, and it may come to see that it’s a good thing to have a rival snapping at its heels.

Roger Mosey is the Master of Selwyn College, Cambridge, and a former head of BBC Television news

Roger Mosey is the Master of Selwyn College, Cambridge. He was formerly editorial director and the director of London 2012 at the BBC.

This article appears in the 28 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Should Labour split?

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