News makes news 

1 January 2002

Writing in the Observer recently, Sky News’ Nick Pollard accused the BBC’ News 24 of “distorting” the market place and of being “a rather lacklustre product.”

Well, he would say that wouldn’t he?

Sky’s criticism centres on the fact that it established a demand for a rolling news service in the UK, only for the BBC to jump in “two-footed” with its own channel. And since the BBC’s channel is licence fee funded, it has an unfair advantage over commercial channels.

Of course, there’s no denying the fact that Sky News was the UK’s first 24-hour news channel. But even though its ratings might have only been almost non-existent (and, according to the BARB figures, sometimes were non-existent), this wasn’t simply a philanthropic gesture on behalf of Rupert Murdoch. Sky News was worth its weight in gold in both political and publicity terms, as without it, Sky’s network was full of what most people feared about deregulated television – hour upon hour of cheap imports, ancient films (since Sky Movies was initially unscrambled) and rubbish sport.

Yet even Sky News wasn’t the bastion of quality that Sky would like to think, with the back half-hour usually filled with imported documentaries or largely past-it UK presenters topping and tailing ancient film clips.

But as events like the Gulf War showed, the world is a 24-hour place, and news often didn’t fall into the convenient lunchtime, early evening and late night slots that the BBC and ITN had established.

Despite this, had the BBC launched its own rolling news service prior to 1997, it would have been an outrageous use of the licence fee, and its critics would have had a field day.

The market for 24-hour news was still tiny, and the BBC would have only been splitting this audience over two channels instead of one. For the BBC to invest licence payers’ money in a channel that was only watched by tens of thousands of viewers (if that) would have been a monumental misuse of the licence fee.

Yet by 1997 things had changed. Although viewers would still need to buy extra equipment to watch the BBC’s digital channels, there was a subtle difference between this situation and the one that existed before the launch of digital television (whether cable, satellite or terrestrial).

The situation was now similar to the one prior to the launch of BBC-2. All viewers would eventually have to switch to digital, just as they had to move from 405-line VHF to 625-line UHF sets. The BBC was therefore right to take advantage of the increased bandwidth now available, yet arguably it would have been wrong for it to have merely launched extra analogue channels on the Astra (or any other) satellite. The BBC should be as inclusive as possible and while only some viewers can receive its news channels at present, in the long-run everyone will be able to, something that would not have happened if television had remained analogue and the BBC was using satellite to deliver its extra channels.

Sky’s criticism about News 24 therefore shifts from one of “why didn’t the BBC launch it earlier?” to one of “why should it exist at all?”

The answer is clearly, it should.

Critics of the BBC seem to believe that if a commercial channel can do something, this means that the BBC shouldn’t. This is clearly nonsense. Yes, the BBC has a duty to provide programming that the commercial sector wouldn’t touch with a barge pole (as the launch of BBC Four shows), but it also has to justify the licence fee by reaching as many people as possible.

Therefore, the BBC is right to launch channels such as News 24 and its two new children’s channels. In fact, for it not to get involved in these sectors just because Sky already had a 24-hour news channel or because Fox Kids or Nickelodeon already provide children’s channels, would have been a dereliction of its duties as a public service broadcaster.

So if News 24 itself is justified, what about the rest of Sky’s criticisms?

Nick Pollard compares Sky News to a “small but successful magazine”, whose profitability was undermined by the emergence of a rival which was given away free to newsagents.

The magazine analogy is one that’s often used by critics of Sky’s forcing bundles of channels upon their customers. After all, the argument goes, when was the last time that you took those magazines you wanted to buy up to the till only for the assistant to hand you a load more magazines that you didn’t want to buy?

This isn’t the place to debate Sky’s bundling policy, but it does strike me as hypocritical of Sky to use this analogy when it suits it, only to claim that the television and publishing markets are completely different on most other occasions. Sky’s stance is summed up by a “letter” in its monthly customer magazine when a digital TV licence was being proposed – “we don’t see why Sky customers should pay for BBC channels that they don’t want” it claimed, although its clearly okay for Sky customers to pay for commercial channels that they don’t want.

Pollard also criticises the BBC’s “commercial approach” in giving News 24 away to cable companies, forcing Sky to do the same. At first glance this would appear to be a case of the mighty BBC abusing its status and jeopardising the status of a commercial rival. Or rather, “rivals,” as he also seems to believe that News 24 is one of the main reasons why the ITN News Channel is struggling when most viewers would conclude that the channel’s obviously cheap nature is the main reason why it fails to attract many viewers.

Sadly, Sky is being guilty of more hypocrisy on this score as well. Yes, News 24 is provided free of charge to cable companies, but then again so are all the BBC’s channels. This is perfectly correct given the BBC’s licence funded status and, more importantly, the fact that all of its channels are free-to-air on all platforms. For the BBC to start charging some viewers for its channels would undermine its licence fee, if not entire existence.

Sky News is also free-to-air, but prior to the launch of News 24, Sky only saw fit to allow its own customers to watch the channel for free – cable companies were expected to pay for the privilege. Somehow Sky sees this as being the BBC’s fault, yet why should the viewers of one platform be expected to pay for channels that are free to viewers of another? Perhaps the most equitable solution would be for any future Broadcasting Bill to specify that free-to-air channels are truly free-to-air, so that the likes of ITV2 and Sky News can’t be offered free to viewers of one platform, while forcing viewers of a rival one to pay for them.

Pollard also takes the opportunity to trumpet the quality and popularity of Sky News compared to the obviously “inferior” News 24. Of course, whether Sky News is better or worse than News 24 (or, indeed, the ITN News Channel) is a subjective matter. Sky might think News 24 is “lacklustre”, but I’d disagree – give me the more measured approach of the BBC over the OTT Sky News which, following a recent revamp, appears to be designed for children or at least those unable to read anything that’s not in the largest font available.

Sky seem to believe that News 24 is merely fragmenting the rolling news audience, but this is not the case – News 24 is one of my most watched channels, but if it wasn’t available there’s no way that I’d simply switch over to Sky News instead in the same way that I wouldn’t buy the Sun if it was the only newspaper left in the country.

News 24 is bringing more choice and better quality to the rolling news market and if Sky doesn’t like it, then as far as I’m concerned, that’s just their tough luck. Hopefully the Lambert review into News 24 will see Sky’s criticisms for what they really are – hypocrisy and spin.

A Transdiffusion Presentation

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Liverpool, Thursday 18 April 2024