Airtime To Fill

Twenty-four-hour news coverage should have ushered in a new age of investigative, in-depth journalism. Instead, it’s banal, repetitive and slack

Where can you hear a scrap of interview that goes like this?

“So you think that’s a mistaken decision?”

“Yes, it’s a great mistake. Definitely.”

“Well, that’s interesting. They’re really making a mistake, then, if they decide that?”


The answer, I’m sorry to say, is on the BBC News Channel  (channel 80 on Freeview).

It was a good idea for the BBC to start a rolling, 24-hour news service. What scope, I thought, it would give them. In our press there is such thin coverage of what’s going on abroad, and now there would be room in the daytime for continual, detailed, newsy reports about such things as, say, how education has changed in the post-Communist years in Eastern Europe, how the rain forests and their ancient inhabitants are coping in Brazil, how Mexicans contrive to get across the Rio Grande into the US and what they do when they get there — all matters of some moment to the people who live in those countries, but never mentioned on TV until there is a disaster.

But the News Channel has not taken up this challenge. It mostly covers exactly the same stories as we get on the other BBC news.  Of course, it has to include those stories, and with bulletins every half-hour it has to repeat them. But what it mainly does besides that is get long, live interviews — and they sound all too often like padding. One feels that the presenter, who usually does the interviews, has been given a fixed and generous number of minutes in order to fill the schedule. So they drag on, with neither party having any more to say.

There is a decided air of time to fill about the whole channel. The presenter introduces one of the political editors and says, in an easygoing way, “Well, now, let’s talk about Ed Balls.” Worst of all, the second half of each hour has items that simply do not fit the idea of a rolling news channel at all-film reviews, or interviews with authors, at scheduled times. 

I admit that the default mode on my television is set at Channel 80, and I often turn it on. But the channel regularly angers me with its slackness and lack of ambition, when it could be so brisk and rich.

Perhaps James Harding, the BBC’s new head of news, could take a hard look at it. But not offer it an interview. 

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