Dumbing Down or Wisening Up
Monday 24 November 2003
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
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
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.
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.
picture for News is actually, I think, rather better than the average.
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.
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.
focus in the wising up or dumbing down argument is more about news on
terrestrial television, so let me take that head on.
some really important context.
First, BBC Television News has changed over the years, but not always
in a consistent direction.
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."
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.
big change now is that we have many more kinds of television news.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
the context in which I am happy for BBC ONE's news to be targeted at
BBC ONE audiences.
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.
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.
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.
what Andy Marr does: broadsheet ideas which are sometimes conveyed with
and I suspect few people would deny that BBC
ONE's political coverage is now the best it ever has been.
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
do measure ourselves against our competitors in broadcasting and in
newspapers on quality and distinctiveness as well as raw numbers.
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.
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.
consistently has a more stretching agenda than ITV's 6.30: while they
have lead with Barrymore, we more often lead with Iraq.
thing here is that this has been a recipe for ratings success as well
as good journalism.
went head-to-head with ITN at Ten O'Clock, everyone said we'd lose:
in fact, we consistently beat them for audience.
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.]
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
has massively increased the amount of news it provides, on television,
radio and online.
a key component in making our new channels and services distinctive.
tried to combine journalistic quality and specialism with modern communication.
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.
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.
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.