Horrocks' job: to prove the BBC should make its own news

The head of news will have to shake things up if he wants to ensure production stays in-house, writes Adrian Monck
 
How could you possibly make BBC television news
any better? It’s the news provider Britons trust most. News 24 is
beating Sky on viewers. Its flagship bulletins on BBC1 have won
awards. Trusted. Watched. Award-winning. 
 
Blimey! New boss Peter Horrocks might as well
just stick his feet on the desk – if he actually does anything, he
might end up ruining the place.

But a gentle puff on the corporate guff and it falls to bits. The “most trusted” claim
is drawn from Press Gazette’s research and refers to output across the
BBC, including its radio arm. News 24 came a poor second to Sky News in
the same research, and its ratings are propped up by Freeview and
cross-promotion.

And the awards? ITV News looks set to clear the boards for its Menezes scoop, so snidely dismissed by the BBC Ten O’Clock News.

Horrocks’
job is in fact immense. It’s nothing less than to demonstrate why the
BBC should be providing its own television news. In public service
broadcasting, news contracts are put to tender and competed for. Even
the acclaimed service provided by Channel 4 News is not immune from
competition. Lord Birt recently noted that the BBC should start its
commissioning process with the question, “why produce in-house?” But
until now, no-one has extended that market philosophy to news – despite
the fact it’s an area of broadcasting where we have not one, but two
outstanding international providers.

How, then, do you go about
making the case for BBC News to stay in its current form? For Horrocks,
that means translating the BBC’s immense newsgathering and resource
strengths into programming of similar calibre. The BBC possesses quite
probably the most formidable television newsgathering machine in the
world. In scope and scale it dwarves rivals at home and abroad in the
sheer comprehensiveness of its offering. In commercial television the
editorial judgment on news coverage is all about picking winners. What
will come up? Where should we concentrate our reporters and camera
crews?

At the corporation it’s different. BBC newsgathering is everywhere.

That
means output editors fill up programmes like greedy tourists at hotel
buffets. As long as you balance it all properly on the plate, you can
pile it on – and there’s plenty more!

The sheer size of Horrocks’
empire is one of his problems. To output the news for the BBC’s two
terrestrial channels, News 24 and a couple of digital channels requires
the best part of 1,000 journalists, and you can double that for the
whole of BBC Television News. Just over 1,000 people make the news for
Sky, ITV, Channel 4 and Five, and that includes two rolling news
channels, plus some digital channel output.

The BBC is not
commercial television, but it is very well staffed and exceptionally
well funded. And Horrocks needs to make the case for that extra
resource and extra funding showing up on screen.

Does the BBC
really require such an immense programming superstructure to bring its
much-admired content to air? Beneath output editors sit programme teams
with experienced and talented journalists often reduced to being little
more than editorial call centre workers. A senior BBC News executive
told me recently that you could fire half the people on the programme
teams – and not even notice the difference.

That would probably be music to the ears of Mark Thompson as he looks to trim costs across the corporation.

The
BBC’s use of technology hasn’t been driven by an attempt to control
costs either. Horrocks will see the final roll-out of the digital
newsroom across his department. ITN used that system to control costs,
change work patterns and reap a dividend. The BBC’s regions have taken
up the digital challenge with vigour. But at White City there will be
no brave new world for programme teams. The old, non-digital order will
simply be transplanted into servers and disk drives, with producers
cutting the odd 20-second clip at their desks.

If Horrocks wants
to stop people asking why the BBC has to manufacture its own television
news, then the case needs to be made by the programmes themselves being
demonstrably superior to anything else on offer, or else better value
for money.

The value case is simple. If the BBC wants to offer
news in the mornings, why not simulcast News 24 instead of the
perpetually uncomfortable Breakfast? The process could be reversed from
one o’clock, with terrestrial output going out on News 24. Integrating
that output would make logistical, production and editorial sense.
Anyone who’s ever flicked between channels will see little more than a
re-shuffling of the decks as correspondents repeat twoways, and similar
packages move up and down to order.

News 24 should be the engine
for BBC News production and programming, not the poor relation tucked
away in a corner. As for the niche channels, it would be nice to return
the presenters of BBC4’s The World to audiences that actually register
on BARB.

Horrocks has one huge advantage. At his disposal is a vast array of talent. But
if that talent is not organised effectively, calls will grow for the
BBC to open that last frontier of programmemaking to competition. And
with that competition, the possibility that others outside the
corporation could manage it better editorially and financially.

Adrian Monck is head of journalism at City University, London

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