10 OCTOBER 1998, Page 36


This is the BBC News and it confounds the beliefs of the marketing men


After nearly two years of preparation the BBC has finally produced its long- awaited report, BBC News: The Future. The Corporation has undertaken 'quantitative research' among 2,000 viewers and con- ducted more in-depth 'focus groups'. By far the most interesting finding, which has sur- prised many senior BBC news executives, is that all viewers — not just upmarket ones — state a preference for serious news. 'Audiences expect the BBC', says the report, 'to provide intelligent coverage of all significant stories — they do not want us to dumb down.'

There is talk in the report about greater accessibility and the need for clearer and 'wanner' reporting, whatever that may mean. But the recurring theme is that view- ers do not want the BBC to `glam-up' the news. They even want more coverage of the arts and culture, though not, says the report, by 'trivialising the agenda'. They also want more science. The general desire for greater seriousness has emboldened the BBC to place more emphasis on foreign news, especially in its nine o'clock bulletin. 'The nine o'clock news will be our showcase for foreign news coverage,' runs the report, 'bucking the trend of our main competitors by putting increased emphasis on reports from all the world's key theatres of political and economic power.'

It might be said with some fairness that if research had produced the opposite con- clusion — that viewers yearn for more dumbing down — I might have pooh- poohed the validity of focus groups. But presented with evidence of this kind, which supports all one's deepest and long-held beliefs, what is one supposed to say? I will concede that it is possible that for fear of appearing dopey some viewers may want to .appear more interested in serious news than they really are. But I am sure that most viewers have a greater interest than is generally believed.

The BBC has stumbled unexpectedly across this truth. The implications for news- papers, and particularly for broadsheets, are equally significant. Over the past few years all broadsheets — the Financial Times excepted — have dumbed down in one way or another. To some extent this dumbing down has been the result of papers casting their nets over a much wider range uf subjects. They write about things which would have been beneath their con- tempt, or at any rate beyond their ken, ten years ago. At the same time they have dumbed down news. There is less foreign news in almost all of them and the general tendency is for much shorter stories about serious events, and many more stories about trivial ones.

There are several reasons for these developments but perhaps the most impor- tant is that editors have ceded control to the marketing men. The marketing men believe they have as sure a sense of what readers want as editors do. They bombard editors with research and statistics which are supposed to show what, readers want. And since the marketing men very often control the purse-strings — or at any rate are close to those who do — editors listen. In fact what they are listening to is often no more than the marketing men's own preju- dices. Marketing men do not usually like foreign news, or in-depth coverage of cul- ture and the arts. They think they are closer to ordinary people, but they aren't. Ordi- nary people want complicated issues to be made sense of in a lucid way. The market- ing men at the BBC probably expected research to show that viewers want dumbed down news. I am overjoyed that they have been hoist with their own petard.

The final act of the Victoria Brittain drama has had an unexpected sequel. Last Wednesday the Guardian published a story about Kojo Tsikata's settlement with the Independent, which I wrote about last week. It was extraordinarily inaccurate. The effect of the piece was to make it sound as though Mr Tsikata, the close friend of Victoria Brittain, deputy foreign editor of the Guardian, had been com- pletely exonerated.

According to the newspaper's report, the Independent had 'apologised' to Mr Tsikata and there had been a 'retraction'. The piece also seemed to imply that the Inde- pendent may have paid a proportion of Mr Tsikata's costs. It stated that the chairman of the investigating board which had origi- nally identified Mr Tsikata as the 'master- mind' behind the murder of three Ghana- ian high court judges had subsequently concluded that Mr Tsikata had no case to answer.

In fact it was a different man — the Ghanaian attorney-general — who came to this conclusion. And as I made clear last week, the Independent did not apologise or make any kind of retraction. It published a statement (the legal distinction is elemen- tary) in which regret was expressed if read- ers had inferred that the paper suggested that Mr Tsikata was the mastermind behind the murders. As to COStS, far from being the beneficiary, Mr Tsikata paid more than half the Independent's costs, amounting to some £.130,000, as well as all of his own. People who have been completely vindicated do not generally do that sort of thing.

The Guardian published a correction at the bottom of page 22 last Friday, putting these errors straight. But those who read the first piece and not the correction will have come to the erroneous conclusion that Mr Tsikata was wholly vindicated and that the Independent, and in particular its two journalists, Karl Maier and Richard Dow- den, were wholly at fault. How could such a thing happen? Several people on the Inde- pendent's side believe that Victoria Brittain, wishing to depict her friend Mr Tsikata in the best possible light, may have had a hand in the inaccurate article.

Alan Rusbridger, editor of the Guardian, denies this is the case. He says that, while at the Labour party conference in Blackpool, he was alerted to the Independent's state- ment and he asked that a piece be written in the Guardian. Nick Hopkins, the author of the piece, is young and comparatively inexperienced, says Mr Rusbridger, and was unaware of the background to the affair and failed to grasp the distinction between an apology and a statement. He says that he has carried out his own enquiries and is certain that Ms Brittain had nothing to do with the article. He describes the errors in the original piece as 'extremely irritating'.

Naturally, I accept Mr Rusbridger's word when he says that he believes this was a genuine cock-up. But can he be sure — particularly as he was absent in Blackpool — what really happened? Mr Hopkins cor- roborates Mr Rusbridger's version of events. What is certain is that the effect of the article last Wednesday was to present Mr Tsikata and Ms Brittain and, by associa- tion, her employer the Guardian in a heroic light, and the Independent and its two jour- nalists in a disgraceful one. How could the paper have done this after everything that has gone before? It is a travesty which no