BBC News Channel at 20

It is a truth universally acknowledged that the Sun newspaper will never resist the opportunity to run an anti BBC story, no matter how frivolous. And so it was yesterday morning when their front page gleefully declared, “HERE IS THE SNOOZE BBC News Channel’s staff accused of wasting taxpayers’ cash as workers photographed sleeping on the job”.

Let’s leave an analysis of why the Sun continually loves to undermine the BBC for another time and instead concentrate on the remarkable fact the 24 hour news Channel is now 20 years old.

Yes, on  5.30 pm on 9th November, the BBC’s 24 hour television news service reached the age of 20 and as part of the celebrations, one of the Corporation’s  leading journalists and personalities, Huw Edwards (who appeared on News 24 in the very first hour of the of the very first day) interviewed current Director General, Lord Hall.

Hall, who was the BBC’s Director of News in 1997 and is credited with launching the service, said that the BBC News channel had become, “absolutely part of the ‘warp and weft’ of our lives….You cannot live without BBC news”. He added, “You cannot imagine the Universe now without being able to turn on and see the news as it happens from the people you trust.”

There’s a lot to unpick in those sentences and perhaps we can forgive a little over exaggeration from someone so entrenched in the culture and organisation of the BBC. But what is unarguable, I think, is that the emergence of a 24 news culture has completely transformed how news is gathered, presented and consumed. As my colleagues Lewis, Cushion and Thomas  have argued, from the audience’s perspective a 24 hours news channel fulfils three main functions: It allows the viewer to watch an up to date bulletin when they wish; it enables the watching of live events as they unfold and, more broadly, it offers more information, analysis, context and background than is available through the more conventional bulletins.

But for the birth of 24 hour news we look not to the BBC or Sky News, whose rolling channel began in 1989, but to the US and Ted Turner’s Cable News Network (CNN), which was launched in 1980. After a decade of establishment and growth it was the Gulf war of 1991 which confirmed the ability of CNN’s rolling news to offer a different viewer experience.

On the first night of that conflict a global audience of over a billion people watched Peter Arnett and Bernard Shaw report live from Baghdad. The majority of foreign journalists were compelled to leave the area but CNN had forged diplomatic relations with Saddam’s government and so stayed to broadcast what Guy Adams in the Independent called “the most watched live event, outside the sporting arena, in the history of mankind.” 

As Stephen Cushion points out, what CNN was offering was a sustained period of immediate liveness. It was providing what other news agencies did not. It could assert its freshness and originality with news because it could interrupt its other news programmes at any time to cover breaking stories. It could consistently report from areas of action and, importantly, provide a visual window on what was happening in the world.

Ever since then, with the expansion of rolling news, debates have raged over its effects and usefulness. The pressure of competition has meant that channels have raced against themselves to ‘break the news’ which has occasionally meant erroneous reports. This has filtered down into the more conventional news programmes, too. In the recent hours and minutes after the attack on the Houses of Parliament in March of this year, a small number of news organisations wrongly identified the terrorist attacker before the police had confirmed that it was Khalid Masood. Among these was Channel 4 News.

In the hours and hours to fill during the course of a 24 hours news cycle, reporters naturally enough, find it difficult to find enough of significance. This may result in speculation, the discussion of rumour or the repetition of key images and themes. The appearance of pundits and experts offering insight and opinion is now the norm – as is more concentrated coverage of more ‘trivial matters’ such as celebrity gossip and royal events. The extensive coverage of the latter is something which has vexed even the reporters themselves, as the BBC’s News channel journalist Simon McCoy regularly illustrates.

In October, reacting to the news of the Duchess of Cambridge’s due date for her third child, McCoy stated to camera, “’I’m not sure how much news this really is,’ before acerbically telling viewers to ‘clear their diaries’ and ‘get the time booked off’. This followed on nicely from McCoy’s performance in 2013, where, outside the hospital housing the newly born Prince George, he said : “Plenty more to come from here. None of it news, of course, but that won’t stop us”.

All this being the case, former director of BBC News, Richard Sambrook, and its ex-head of strategy, Sean McGuire have argued that digital technology has left rolling news channels outmoded.

The point is, in terms of the media industries, we live in times where the rapidity of technological development is breathtaking. Sambrook and McGuire reason that as these changes have occurred news consumers have become more sophisticated and discerning in their choices, electing to be informed by a variety of sources. Rolling news may have established the 24 hours news habit, they write, but:

Today social media and mobile phones fulfil the instant news needs of consumers better than any TV channel can.

So where does this leave the BBC News channel as it enters its third decade? It’s not blind to impact of the likes of Twitter and Facebook and in recent years, as digital expert Mike Manning  has stated, there have been efforts to alter its content to reflect and cater for different audience needs. Its afternoon output now has more of a populist, current affairs feel with show such as Afternoon Live  and Reality Check, which purports to cut through the spin and concentrate on the facts.

And although the past few years have seen the decline of television as the single most widely used source of news, according to the most recent OFCOM report it’s still the most popular platform, used by 69% of adults. In this sense then, I believe Tony Hall to be correct. In this fragmented, ever changing media environment we need the ‘crafted bulletins’ compiled by experts who provide a range of news. This is why, for all its faults, it remains essential.