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24 September 2014
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Roger Mosey

Head of Television News

Dumbing Down or Wisening Up

Monday 24 November 2003
Printable version

Speech given to the Society of Editors Conference

There is always a temptation with this title - dumbing down or wisening up - to say simply, and possibly complacently, 'wisening up it is'.

I think all of us have been to enough media award ceremonies to know this is an industry in which self-congratulation is an art form: journalists recommend the cold showers of reality for others but prefer the warm bath of reassurance for themselves.

So let me start by saying unequivocally that in this multi-channel age I think there is more bad television than there has ever been.

Some channels are devoted almost entirely to terrible programming - I've long had a belief that one day we'll have something called The Rubbish Channel - but the contagion has spread to some of the more mainstream offerings.

If you have never seen Wudja Cudja on ITV2 and (sadly) ITV1, consider yourself lucky; but the schlocky foreign programmes which Chris Tarrant used to mock are now on a terrestrial channel near you.

We can still hope that the great companies of the television age will be able to resist this slide downmarket, but we should equally be clear that the multichannel age also delivers more good television than ever before: more arts on BBC FOUR or Artsworld; excellent sport on Sky Sports; the disability series recently on BBC TWO; interesting movies on Film Four; countless language services for the ethnic communities of Britain and genuine services for all minorities.

I am personally a firm believer in choice and freedom, and so far there is enough evidence that the massive increase in the number of channels can raise aspirations as well as bringing us Granada Men and Motors.

Now, the picture for News is actually, I think, rather better than the average.

We like to tease each other on platforms like these, but the truth is that Sky News and the ITV News Channel - as well as all the American services like CNBC, CNN and Fox - actually provide good and professional news services for millions of people.

I'm not going to accuse our rivals of dumbing down: actually, the interesting thing remains that Sky News is very traditional, and nobody has yet tried a tabloid news channel in the UK.

So the focus in the wising up or dumbing down argument is more about news on terrestrial television, so let me take that head on.

There's some really important context.

First, BBC Television News has changed over the years, but not always in a consistent direction.

In the 1980s BBC ONE's news was analysed by John Birt, according to Horrie and Clarke's extremely entertaining book Fuzzy Monsters, with these conclusions: [quote] "BBC TV News was doing fairly well but was not competing with either ITV or the broadsheet papers. The Nine O'Clock News and other bulletins were too superficial and at times too trivial. Important events had to be given [more] priority over the [head of News's preferred] Queen Mum stories."

Whatever you think of John Birt's view, it is undoubtedly the case that the flagship programmes - especially the old Nine O'Clock News - moved upmarket in the Birt era.

The other big change now is that we have many more kinds of television news.

No longer can it all be defined by the BBC ONE bulletins. Apart from News 24, of which we're extremely proud, we have two more news channels in BBC World and BBC Parliament -all classic public affairs television.

We continue to produce Newsnight for BBC TWO; and now Liquid News and 60 seconds for BBC Choice, to be followed next year by a 15-minute News programme when it becomes BBC THREE; and this year we launched BBC FOUR News which is ambitiously internationalist and higher ground.

In January we'll bring in a new hour-long programme for BBC ONE daytime which is designed to capture some of the kind of debate featured on Nicky Campbell's radio show.

So there are many more flavours of news, and the fact there's so much of it is a sign that the BBC as a whole is still committed to informing as well as entertaining.

Sure - BBC THREE News will be unashamedly targeted at a young audience, but BBC THREE is the only channel of its kind which has such a commitment to news. There is no news on Sky One or E4.

So that's the context in which I am happy for BBC ONE's news to be targeted at BBC ONE audiences.

It now seems a statement of the blindingly obvious that news should fit its host channel, and I therefore have no problem with BBC ONE news being a quality, mass-market service.

It's one of those mildly odd things which critics sometimes say: why can't the Six O'Clock News be more like Channel 4 News? And the answer is that the Six O'Clock News is on BBC ONE and serves around 18 million viewers each week, and each night it gets five or six times the audience of Channel 4 News which is on a minority channel and is targeted accordingly.

But I want to be absolutely clear about this. You need two things.

Channel focus is great, but BBC News Values are essential too. If there was one thing we learnt from the Birt era it was about the importance of analysis and the value of specialism, and where they can be brought together with popular journalism you have an incredibly powerful combination.

That's what Andy Marr does: broadsheet ideas which are sometimes conveyed with tabloid simplicity… and I suspect few people would deny that BBC ONE's political coverage is now the best it ever has been.

So too with John Simpson - a great communicator who is also a genuine expert; and it goes on with Evan Davis and Niall Dickson and Orla Guerin and the rest.

And we do measure ourselves against our competitors in broadcasting and in newspapers on quality and distinctiveness as well as raw numbers.

On the day of the Edwina Currie/John Major revelations we made that the lead story in Breakfast and our early bulletins; but for the main BBC ONE news we switched to Iraq and the anti-war protests in London because we thought they were more important.

I was pleased to see in the latest Journalist's Handbook praise for the Ten's running orders during Soham: one night we led with the expulsion of white farmers in Zimbabwe followed by floods in Europe before we got to the small development in Soham which was the lead everywhere else.

The Six consistently has a more stretching agenda than ITV's 6.30: while they have lead with Barrymore, we more often lead with Iraq.

The heartening thing here is that this has been a recipe for ratings success as well as good journalism.

When we went head-to-head with ITN at Ten O'Clock, everyone said we'd lose: in fact, we consistently beat them for audience.

At Ten, people tune from ITV to the BBC News. [I should say, Richard, that I don't think you were helped by the terrible scheduling decisions of the ITV Network.]

The Six O'Clock News is the most popular programme in its timeslot; and the One O'Clock News is daytime's highest-rated half-hour. In other words, it is possible to combine quality with quantity.

So my case is this.

The BBC has massively increased the amount of news it provides, on television, radio and online.

News is a key component in making our new channels and services distinctive.

We have tried to combine journalistic quality and specialism with modern communication.

Exactly like newspapers - with the only difference being that they don't have to cope with people saying how much better it would be if the Times just put ads back on the front page.

On BBC ONE we're determined to be distinctive in the market-place, and we're proud of making the Ten O'Clock News a flagship for the whole channel - and laying to rest the argument that serious News doesn't win audiences.

And let me end with a personal pledge. This Television News management team, and the BBC News division as a whole, doesn't want to dumb down and will not dumb down… We welcome the support of the industry for wisdom, and we in turn will do our best to nurture it as widely as possible.


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