'Opinionated news would halt viewer slide': report

Tonight: fewer viewers than World in Action


Rules on impartiality should be relaxed by the new broadcast regulator to allow "opinion channels", according to a report commissioned by two television watchdogs.

Changes in impartiality rules under Ofcom could open the way for news that follows a specific agenda, such as Fox News in the US, which has attracted audiences with its pro-US coverage of the war on terror. There is some interest in the UK in developing more opinionated news programmes, but current impartiality rules that focus mainly on party politics and industrial disputes prevent this.

Written by Ian Hargreaves and James Thomas from Cardiff University, the report New News, Old News calls for "a range of experimentation" and a broader definition of impartiality in "a time of diminished party loyalties".

This will ensure that the views of ethnic minorities, the young and other groups are represented.

"It may be that a more opinionated style of broadcast news, originated from well outside the UK broadcasting mainstream, is helpful in the overall news mix, so long as consumers are aware what they are getting and which services conform to impartiality rules and which do not," the report says.

The report published last week by the Independent Television Commission and the Broadcasting Standards Commission shows that support for impartial and accurate news is "overwhelming".

But in the light of the fall in average viewing times for news programmes from nine hours a month to eight since 1994, the report calls for the issue of impartiality to be debated during the passage of the communications bill.

The report also concludes that the more popular style of current affairs programmes have not stemmed a decline in audiences from 64.3 hours a year in 1994 to 43.9 in 2001.

Tonight with Trevor McDonald attracted an average of 3.6 million viewers last year compared with 6.7 million for World in Action in 1994. Other programmes, which were criticised for being "frequently rescheduled", including the BBC’s Money Programme and the consumer affairs programme Watchdog, have also seen their audiences fall.

The report notes that audiences for programmes such as Despatch Box and On The Record, which the BBC announced it was to axe earlier this year, had remained steady. It criticised the move to ditch the programmes before the success of new programmes aimed at attracting wider audiences to politics was proven.

By Julie Tomlin and Mary Stevens

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