Four reasons why the BBC is failing to explain the news

A radical rethink is needed if the BBC is to fulfil its mission of informing the general public.

Mark Oliver
16 September 2019, 12.09pm
The BBC newsroom.

People in the UK look to the BBC to explain many of the challenges facing the country today. Yet most are under informed about a raft of issues ranging from: Brexit to immigration policy. So why is the BBC failing in its “mission to explain”? In short, it has failed the necessary precursor – the mission to understand.

Our commentariat has never been better supplied with facts, and yet we have never had such a paucity of public knowledge around complex issues. To counter popular misconceptions, the BBC needs to go beyond fact checking and provide more context. The lack of depth in its coverage of crucial stories is leading to an increasingly partisan general public, and, consequently, a failure to hold those with power to account.

Too much output, too many outlets, not enough time to think

There are four main reasons why the BBC is not explaining the news well. Firstly, BBC journalists are too busy producing news stories to have enough time to think through issues or properly research them. The BBC needs to cut the number of news and current affairs outlets and focus on the quality of the coverage and the arguments being published. It could start by closing BBC News, its 24-hour news channel, and reducing the number of current affairs strands on Radio 4 – pooling resources into fewer shows. It could reduce the number of stories it publishes on its BBC news site each week.

By cutting the number of evenings that Newsnight is broadcast, the BBC could revive a programme that has become a tired and gimmick ridden nightly merry-go-round of the same issues and arguments. The show reached its nadir last year when it asked three pundits, Iain Dale, Bronwen Maddox and Paul Mason, to pin pictures of leading political players on a cardboard cut-out of Big Ben, which it dubbed the “Tower of Power”. The Day Today sketch show, which parodied Newsnight in the 1990s, could not have done a better job at highlighting how the show has completely lost its way.

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BBC Newsnight's Big Ben prop, which was ridiculed on social media. | BBC

Ineffectively engaging with experts and academics

The BBC needs to recognise that the provision of expertise is often a business like any other. Think tanks have to get funding, popular academics want to sell their latest book or get a better post. Experts with vested economic interests also get more profile and resources than those that don’t. The BBC can get this right. Its approach to polling interpretation is now based around a real expert – politics professor John Curtice – and not the heads of polling organisations.

Too much focus on reach, not enough on impact

The BBC needs to measure whether what it broadcasts actually improves understanding of important issues, not simply how many people watched, listened or clicked. It needs to assess whether different demographic groups feel those in power were properly held to account, and whether anything on the BBC has helped change their view of any issue or not.

Higher reach only provides better value for money to licence payers if they get something useful from the interaction. We don’t properly measure the value for money of the NHS by how many people use it, but what it does to improve the nation’s health, and how quickly it does it.

A lack of ambition in its output beyond the news

The BBC needs new landmark series on housing, immigration, green energy, inequality, trade and globalisation to match the ambition of its history and science programming. Part of the appeal of these series is their relevance to current issues: witness Henry VIII’s split with mainland Europe, or the rise of fascism and the undermining of truth in the 1920s and 1930s. But what about a few more series about today’s issues and choices?

Where are the programmes looking at Britain as a trading nation, Britain’s future role in the world, or the Union, or the recent history of Ireland and the importance of the Good Friday agreement, or the many issues we face in the UK housing market?

The BBC could also learn from TV’s own past. It could look to ITV’s former investigative programme World in Action for inspiration. The long-running show, which ended in 1998, occasionally reenacted news stories like Margaret Thatcher's European negotiations. The main protagonists were played by people who had experience of government or observed cabinet and emergency meetings taking place. A new take on the format could cover, for instance, the potential aftermath of a no deal Brexit or a future banking crisis. It would probably be a lot more informative than the "Tower of Power".

All is not lost but if we are to improve the quality of our political debate in the UK and therefore the effectiveness of our democracy. We need our main public service broadcaster to engage in a proper mission to understand the news. Then, and only then, can it start to properly explain a complex world to the UK public.

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