A little while ago I posted a slightly despairing Tweet about BBC News, in particular the state of its ‘Most Popular’ tab and the nature of the articles. About half of the time this section is ‘ok’ in terms of quality and actual relevance of news, restoring a bit of faith in the corporation and – indeed – its audience. The other half of the time it’s full of buzz-worthy nonsense, with articles about selfie addicts, photogenic couples getting engaged (I’m not even referring to the ‘Royal Wedding’!) and collections of old toys getting more hits than, well, actual news.
A few people seemed to agree with my sentiment, but one reply did stick with me as an odd defence – “they don’t control what gets read the most”. Well, that’s the thing, they do. They control what they publish, therefore they have complete control over whether they’re a news business or a hits business.
I’ve complained about the state of current media privately and a bit in public (occasionally on this blog), but I’ve often added the proviso that we get the media we deserve. Very few of us pay for media any more, and I’m in that number. I pay for a Kindle New York Times subscription (that counts as five points on my Hipster card, ten during double points promotions) but browse The Guardian for free. I let The Guardian get a tiny amount of money from me by serving ads (I never ad-block, as ads paid my bills for four years), partly because I think it’s getting worse with each passing year. That’s a vicious cycle, but I feel the Grauniad will keep getting more clickbaity regardless of how many pay to ‘support’ it, because it’ll want to keep the ad money high while cashing in real money contributions. So I accept it’ll make me roll my eyes on a daily basis, but it’s better than most of its rivals.
So that’s two of my news sources, and lower down the list is the BBC. What should make BBC News different is that, actually, it shouldn’t – theoretically – be trying to stay financially viable. Until recently I worked in video games media, and when I wrote about that recently I suggested “I was increasingly feeling like a relic”, as the kind of content I wanted to do didn’t always make the most sense for a business. I would bang on about ‘tone’, and quietly seethe when it dipped under my watch. I think most of the time our balance was fine, but as the months drifted by I felt like I was becoming bad for business, not willing to change fast enough to drive the traffic that keeps the lights on. Traffic was always good, but was I holding it back because I wouldn’t modernise fast enough? Potentially.
But that was a business, as are The Guardian and The New York Times; the latter maintains its credibility more successfully in my eyes, so I pay for it. The BBC, though, is funded by the TV License and is a public body. It shouldn’t have to chase the hits and ratings; in theory it should just try to do its job well.
There are reasons for BBC News going a bit Buzzfeed, online and in terms of some of its TV and radio output. One of these is undoubtedly political pressure. It seems over the past decade in particular, since the Tories came into government, that any renewal of TV License terms has come fraught with coded threats to the BBC about its performance and its content. Because the BBC is effectively reliant on a mix of public money and extras made through the ‘Worldwide’ service and sales of content, it’s caught between behaving as a public broadcaster and commercial enterprise.
So it pays big for some stars (infamously, especially male stars), while having to slash budgets elsewhere due to pressure and restrictions with the license fee. When you watch BBC News or view the website now and compare it to five years ago I think there must have been a real talent drain, especially in day-to-day journalism. I think there are still a few big journalistic beasts that produce fantastic work occasionally, and we still have the likes of Newsnight and Andrew Marr, but the broader levels and standards have (in my opinion) dropped.
As the BBC tries to justify its public funding it seems to fall into the same trap as commercial rivals – grab cheap hits to hold up the real content that performs more modestly. So we see buzz-worthy nonsense blending with real news, and BBC News does far less detailed and investigative work than in the past; after all, longform content costs time and money, two things given no quarter on the internet. Quantity and speed matter more than quality and care when it comes to online reporting. The BBC, sadly, is trying to operate within the echo chamber of the internet, rather than stand apart in an effort to inform, educate and inspire.
It’s not all bad, the BBC as a whole still does many good things and undoubtedly has some great people working hard. I’ll always be a strong defender of the need to have the BBC too, as British culture would suffer major damage if it was lost. I still marvel at all the BBC does for good drama on TV, the music events it organises, the incredible fundraising through its support for Comic Relief, Sport Relief, Children in Need etc. We need the British Broadcast Corporation.
I just wish its News department could back itself to get back to its first duty – to report the news to the highest possible standards. Don’t chase hits, don’t play the online journalism game. Just say “we are the BBC, we work differently”.
Then it’d be even more worthy of our appreciation.