John Humphrys: How Much Do We Need BBC News and Current Affairs?

August 20, 2021, 3:48 PM UTC

In rare weeks like this one, when world-changing events such as the collapse of Afghanistan to the Taliban are happening with lightning speed, the public is hungry for the news. Interested and anxious people tend to make a point of checking in to the BBC’s Six O’clock News, or the Ten O’clock, to find out the latest. Or at least they did. But the days when these flagship news programmes commanded the attention of the nation are seeming increasingly distant. It’s not just that rival channels have set up in competition; it’s that fewer of us are relying on television news programmes to get the news. Yet BBC News and Current Affairs has a worldwide reputation for reliability and impartiality second to none. Can it, and should it, survive when fewer people want to watch its programmes? And, if it’s to survive, how should it be paid for?

Ask any young person when they last watched the BBC’s main television news programmes, and most likely they’ll look at you in complete bafflement. Some may need it spelling out to them exactly what the Six O’clock and the Ten O’clock actually are since they’ve never heard of them. Others know what you’re talking about but will look at you in a condescending sort of way and then make clear that it is you who needs something spelt out. They get all the news they need from their phones. They can get it all the time, as and when they want it, and it must be rather weird to be constrained by an arbitrary TV schedule in order to find out what’s going on in the world. In short: Get a life!

You might ask whether there was ever a time when young people sat glued to the news on the box. That doesn’t happen until they have kids of their own nd can no longer go out clubbing every night. If ever. What’s different now is that little gadget from which the young are never separated. Never. It gives them all the news they can possibly want plus an awful lot else besides. And we ain’t seen nuthin yet. We are still in the foothills of mobile technology. Today’s addiction to mobiles is no passing fad. It will continue until something even more addictive takes its place. You can’t turn the technical clock back. Never have, never will. Eventually there will be something new that will render mobiles as quaint and obsolete as the technology they have superseded. But we won’t be going back to the telly for our news. Ever.

This week Huw Edwards let it be known that he’s thinking of leaving the BBC’s Ten O’clock News. He said it’s because he’s just hit sixty. With respect, Huw, that’s rubbish. Especially coming from someone as keen as he is to tell us how fit he has become through a passion for boxing. It’s probably more likely that he’s seen the writing on the wall. Being the frontman of a television news programme is simply no longer the prestigious, high-profile job it once was.

That writing has been on the wall for some time. The rise of the smartphone has merely turned the scribble into something in bold capitals and black ink. The BBC’s monopoly went years ago with the appearance on the block of rivals such as ITN and later Sky News, CNN and others. Audiences for the BBC News programmes have been falling as a consequence. Back in the 1980s when I was doing Huw Edwards’ job on the then Nine O’clock News we could expect audiences of nine million or so; now they hope for four million.

You might say that competition is a good thing, and so it is. It was famously remarked that ITV (and its news service, ITN) existed to keep the BBC honest. So long as the rivals shared the same basic values of public service broadcasting -- to provide accurate, impartial reporting of what’s going on, and rigorous analysis of what it might mean – competition could only improve the public’s understanding of the world we live in. But once those values cease to be the shared currency of everyone offering to tell us about the world, the implications of competition become very much more troubling. For all their protestations of innocence, it would be hard to conclude that, say, Russia Today or Fox News place adherence to the public service value of impartiality at the top of their concerns.

We are now a very long way from the world of C P Scott, for over fifty years at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries the great editor of the Manchester Guardian. ‘Comment is free, but facts are sacred’, he ruled. Many of the newest entrants to the world of news broadcasting would simply laugh at such a distinction: their entire business model depends on trashing it. Indeed it’s reported that Andrew Neil, the founder of the newest kid on the British block, GB News, has spent the summer in his French villa scratching his head about what exactly should be the balance between news and comment on the channel.

The proliferation of news channels and the blatant abandonment by some of Scott’s dictum has huge implications for the working of democracy. If you doubt that, just take a look at the United States and ask yourself a question: why does a very large minority of the American public believe that the last presidential election was stolen from Donald Trump, despite there being not a shred of evidence to support it? Surely the only explanation is that these people get their news pretty much exclusively from channels that tell them that this is the case and do so because they think it serves their interests and because they think facts are anything but sacred. Propaganda can easily seem like news.

Smartphones, and people’s increasing reliance on the plethora of sources of news and comment on social media for informing themselves of what’s going on, have have turned the arena of political debate into a jungle. In the past – the era of the BBC and its ‘honest’ rivals -- you could have characterised that arena as one in which the public could turn to its news broadcasters for the ‘facts’, presented in as impartial a way as is ever possible. Then, on the basis of these shared facts, we could all have a big row about what they meant, what should be done about them, who we should vote for and so on. But the key thing was that the public service news broadcasters provided us with a common account of the world about which we could then argue.

That common account no longer exists. Because we get our news from so many different sources, and because so many of those sources are palpably tainted, we no longer share an account of the world about which we can argue. That’s why it’s a jungle. And it’s why political argument is becoming ever more angry: we can no longer even agree on what we’re talking about, never mind what we should do about it. News is following the trend of postmodern truth: just as there is no longer ‘truth’, just ‘my truth’ and ‘your’ truth, so now there is ‘my’ news and ‘your’ news. My news tells me Biden won, yours that Trump was cheated. Evidence doesn’t enter into it.

But just as many people resist the idea that the concept of truth per se should be junked in favour of a sort of postmodern ‘whatever’, so they think news, and the facts that news supplies us, matter. In short, they think that in the new jungle it’s more important than ever that BBC News and Current Affairs, adhering to the core values that have made it pre-eminent in the world for being trustworthy and reliable, should survive. The question is: how can it, when fewer and fewer people are arranging their days so that they can sit down and watch its main television news programmes, at six and ten? Will these programmes become the equivalent of the shipping forecast, vital for only a very few but kept on affectionately as a sort of relic? Almost the background music to our lives which we’d hate to see removed but to which we pay little attention.

The sad reality is that the days of the licence fee are numbered. Even the BBC accepts that. Competition has done for it. Now people can get their entertainment and their sport and their news from any number of other sources, most of which they have to pay for. So why should they be forced, in addition, to pay the licence fee when the BBC is supplying less and less of what they want?

But what to do? There are two much-discussed alternatives to the licence fee: that the BBC should sell advertising space like most of its commercial rivals; or that it should become a subscription service in which only people who want to use it should have to pay for it.

I doubt that the nation would choose to go down the advertising route. I hope not. The alternative is some sort of subscription. Not from choice but from necessity. If we choose the BBC’s drama, its sport, even Radio Four we’ll just have to pay for it. But with one very large exception. BBC news and current affairs.

God knows it’s not perfect. The BBC remains the most trusted news broadcaster in the land by a very wide margin. It is, by any acceptable definition, a public service.

It is precisely because, in news and current affairs terms, our political arena has become such a dangerous jungle that it seems to me vital, in the public interest, to maintain a source of news and current affairs analysis still wedded to those public service values of impartiality and reliability, and to make it universally available to anyone who wants it. I’m not of course saying that the BBC alone provides it. But it remains the pre-eminent source and it needs protecting: our democracy depends on it. It follows that if that’s in the public interest, the public should pay for it – not via the licence fee but from general taxation.

It’s not hard to see who the opponents of this idea would be, because they make their views known every time it is suggested. But do their arguments stand up?

First, there are the BBC’s news rivals. Their question is: why should the BBC get handouts from the taxpayer and not us? It’s a fair question, but there’s a fair answer: the alternative would be worse for them. A subscription BBC news service is ruled out if we want it to be available to everyone. So that leaves advertising. But do the BBC’s rivals, such as ITN and Sky, really want a new big beast in the field, competing for increasingly scarce advertising, to their inevitable detriment? Surely it would be better for them to swallow the ‘unfairness’ of public subsidy of BBC news, leaving them alone to share the decreasing advertising cake.

Then it’s said the taxpayer wouldn’t stand for it. Really? We’re not talking billions and billions here. The public has been reasonably tolerant of having to fork out the licence fee even as their use of BBC services has fallen. And paying for the BBC out of general taxation would be much fairer than the licence fee because people on low incomes (who basically don’t pay much, if any, income tax) would get BBC news for free, whereas now they have to pay for a licence. BBC news would be paid for by the wealthier among us, just as the wealthier pay more for that other great public service, the NHS. The public accepts this.

Finally, we know that politicians with a long-standing animosity to the BBC would kick up. And we know what some of them would say. It would be along the lines of: ‘Yes, this plea for the BBC on the grounds that it’s impartial, reliable, only got the public interest at heart and all the rest of it … if only it were true! But it’s not the BBC I know. The one I see is stuffed with leftie journalists, committed to woke nonsense, and is as biased in its own way as Fox News is in its. And now you’re asking the taxpayer to pay for it! Dream on…’.

To that I would say: ‘Let’s not lose a sense of proportion here. It’s perfectly true that most journalists who want to work at the BBC are left of centre, and it seems to me perfectly fair to complain that some of its recent journalistic judgement stray in the direction of what you call ‘woke nonsense’ – I’ve made complaints myself. But comparing it to Fox News is simply nonsense. It’s the purpose of Fox News to be opinionated. It most certainly isn’t the purpose of the BBC, and if it strays occasionally from its real purpose – impartiality and trustworthiness – that can be corrected. Indeed that’s precisely one of the things Tim Davey was appointed Director-General to do.’

And then I’d turn the argument round. Many of the politicians who bad mouth the BBC are the same politicians who talk of our future as ‘Global Britain’. But if that phrase has any meaning (and Theresa May rather sharply questioned whether it does, when she asked where Global Britain was this week on the streets of Kabul), then it is inconceivable without the contribution of the BBC. The BBC, and especially its news and current affairs, is the very face of Global Britain across the world. Without it, Britain would quite simply lose its identity and its presence. Do we really want that?

So the question is this. Even as we send our apologies and stop turning up to watch the BBC’s Six O’clock and Ten O’clock news programmes, do we want BBC News and Current Affairs to bite the dust, or do we want its output still to be available to us all, whether watched on catch-up, on our iPads or on our phones? And if we do, how should we pay for it?

Let us know what you think.