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EDITIONS
Thursday, 5 December, 2002, 18:43 GMT
Under BBC News 24's skin
BBC News 24 in 1997
BBC News 24's early days: Staying on air was a struggle
Nick Higham

No-one today disputes that BBC News 24 was a disaster when it first launched in November 1997.

Richard Lambert, author of the government's independent review of the channel, says it could hardly have got off to a worse start, suffering as it did from problems with new technology, with its style and presentation, its news concept and its organisation.

"For the first few months, the main concern seem to have been not so much about the quality of programming, but more about simply staying on air," he says, and he quotes a News 24 insider who described the channel's original set as looking "like a car crash in a shower room".

Today, he says, News 24 is a respectable service, its performance "satisfactory in all areas, and better than that in some."

Sky News
September 11 proved the value of rolling news channels
But he says it is not yet as good as the BBC claims it is, or as good as it could be.

Governors criticised

He is critical of the BBC's governors, slyly quoting annual reports in the channel's first two years which failed to highlight quite how controversial it had proved and talked resolutely about a "successful" launch.

In general he says the governors' comments over the past four years seem perfunctory, for a channel that has so far cost 220 million and which "at one stage threatened seriously to weaken the reputation of the BBC as a news organisation".

He says the governors need to spell out more clearly the ways in which they want the channel to be distinctive and should set measurable targets on things like audience reach, regional coverage and the balance between headline news and detailed reporting.

This makes Lambert just the latest in a long line of commentators to question the governors' sometimes awkward position as both the BBC's most senior management and its regulator.

Broadcasting House's boardroom
Lambert criticises the role of the BBC's governors
In due course all the BBC's new digital channels will be subject to the same sort of scrutiny as News 24 - a condition the government imposed when it authorised the corporation to launch new services.

The reviews are designed to show whether the channels as broadcast reflects the commitments the BBC originally gave about their character and content.

Right choice

Richard Lambert says it was not his job to reopen the question of whether the BBC should have launched News 24 in the first place - but goes on to answer it anyway, saying that in his view it was right to give permission for the channel, and that the BBC's long-term future as a public service organisation would have been in jeopardy if permission had been withheld.

This has delighted the BBC, whose news executives are relieved at the general tone of the report. The corporation is promising to take on board many of Lambert's recommendations.

It says it's planning to improve the channel's regional coverage and expand its interactive news service - something strongly urged by Lambert - and to revise the channel's published remit in the light of his and the government's proposals.

But one of his recommendations puzzles both the BBC and its main rival, Sky News.

ITV News Channel
ITV's news channel - a headline news service - is cheaper to run
"An absolute determination to be the first to break accurate news," Lambert says, "must be at the heart of everything the channel does."

Richard Sambrook, the BBC's director of news, says the corporation does not want to sacrifice its reputation for accuracy in the pursuit of breaking news.

Nick Pollard, head of Sky News, says breaking news is his channel's speciality - something confirmed by research among opinion formers commissioned by Lambert - and it makes no sense, if News 24 is supposed to become more distinctive, for it to try and ape Sky in this respect.

Cash debate

Another bone of continuing contention is likely to be money.

Lambert says the channel - which costs 50 million a year - is carrying full charges for its access to the BBC news machine, and is contributing to BBC overheads ("So News 24 is paying its share of the director general's limousine," as he puts it).

The costs are high, Lambert says, by comparison with the competition - especially ITN's ITV News channel.

Nik Gowing on BBC World
BBC World is run as a commercial service
He wants to know on what basis the BBC governors decided that the channel offers viewers value for money, and says licence fee payers and competitors have to take too much on trust.

"The BBC should publish broad details of the financial relationships between its subsidised and commercial news activities," he says, referring not only to News 24 (funded by the licence fee) but to its global channel BBC World, which is a commercial service and which is said to cost a comparatively meagre 13 million.

Sky's Pollard says the report bears out his contention that, despite News 24's access to the resources of the BBC news machine, it costs more, is less popular and is less polished than his own channel.

In the past, he maintains, the finances of the channel have been "impenetrable", and should now become clearer.

Accountable

The BBC says that, when it comes to money, it is more open and accountable than any of its competitors, and says the governors "will be considering how the financial transparency of News 24 can be improved further".

Richard Sambrook
The BBC's head of news Richard Sambrook welcomed the report
But Richard Sambrook claims News 24's costs are very similar to those of Sky News, if like is compared with like.

Pollard disputes this, but admits the two channels "count different things" in arriving at their respective costs of 50 million and 35 million a year.

The Lambert report is rather headmasterly in tone (an impression reinforced by the reference to a piece on the channel in June by this reporter, which the report describes as a "good effort").

Like many outsiders, Lambert clearly views the BBC as insufficiently accountable and inclined to arrogance.

"In its public pronouncements the BBC excels in high rhetoric about its mission," he says, "but this is not enough."

But there are some signs his report is having the effect he'd hoped for, namely to make the channel more obviously distinctive, and the kind of service that only a public service broadcaster could provide.

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05 Dec 02 | Entertainment
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