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Last Updated: Friday, 27 January 2006, 10:17 GMT

What's the point?

By Raymond Snoddy
NewsWatch presenter

Nearly every week, someone calls or writes to ask why NewsWatch exists.

They say it appears to be little more than a platform for the BBC to defend its actions and to ignore the comments and complaints of the licence fee payers.

This e-mail sums it up. "Isn't it amazing that no matter how blatantly wrong the BBC may be in something it has done, nobody will ever put their hand up and say they got it wrong?" wrote Michael Ginn. "'Sorry' is not in the BBC's vocabulary."

In fact, last week so many people got in touch to make that point that it seemed a good opportunity to outline what NewsWatch sets out to achieve.

Firstly, what it most definitely is not is another arm of the BBC's mighty publicity and propaganda machine.

Departure

NewsWatch is there to represent the viewers, to get answers to your criticisms of BBC News - whenever possible in face to face discussions with those in charge.

NewsWatch discussion
The aim is to bring viewers and bosses face to face
It's not a new concept to put BBC bosses on the spot on TV, but it is a departure for the news division.

It's a step in the right direction towards a more open and accountable BBC, but like all big, monolithic organisations, change takes time.

One viewer, policeman's wife Sharon Lyons, told us the police and the BBC were like dinosaurs. "You kick them in the tail and it takes 10 years to get through to the head," she explained.

Audience research

But should we expect the BBC to hold up its hands in apology every time? To be fair, it's the nature of any business that more people get in touch to complain than to offer praise.

So while the complaints to NewsWatch may well be valid, in making its decisions the BBC will also be incorporating any positive feedback and the results of its own audience research.

Then there are the viewing figures beloved of TV executives in justifying their programmes.

So there are two sides to the coin. But while the BBC has to weigh up the complaints against the other information it has received, that doesn't mean that criticism from just a handful of people is automatically wrong. After all, only one formal complaint is required for the regulator, Ofcom, to launch an investigation if it sees fit.

Arrogant

However, for many viewers, it's not what the BBC representatives say, it's how they say it. The word that crops up most in our correspondence is "arrogant".

The audience want to feel that the BBC is genuinely listening, and while some news editors understand that very well, it doesn't always come across in discussions on NewsWatch.

"Whenever has anything actually been changed as a result of comments made to your programme?" asked viewer Chris Morris. That's a common response.

Viewers can have an effect on some things - decisions on the look of the set or whether presenters should wear ties.

The worst thing you can have is that we listen but we don't do anything about it
Mark Byford
Deputy Director-General
But these are, to be honest, not the type of editorial shifts many people would like to see.

"We do listen, but the worst thing you can have is that we listen but we don't do anything about it," the deputy director-general, Mark Byford, told me recently.

"It doesn't mean that every single time somebody makes a point we must automatically act on it, but we should discuss it among our teams."

I think a problem can arise when an executive agrees that a mistake has been made but it still continues to be repeated. Viewers notice this, and perhaps more could be done to make staff aware of particular pitfalls.

While NewsWatch aims to be robust in its approach, some viewers think we occasionally let the BBC off the hook. I take pains to avoid the abrasive interviewing style that prompts thousands of complaints each year.

At the same time I think it's important to cover a range of issues raised by viewers rather than harangue an editor on a single point. Ultimately, NewsWatch is there to make the BBC face up to the views of the people who fund it.

Receptive

I don't expect to get apologies every week - it would make for rather repetitive viewing. But I do think a few bosses could brush up their act to at least present a more conciliatory, receptive front.

Your comments on this score aren't trade secrets. Recently I gave a presentation to a BBC audience which included some of the most senior news executives. They know how many of you feel about what you see on NewsWatch.

So we will continue to act as a rigorous forum for examination of the BBC's policies and decisions. I hope that as the organisation grasps the concept of greater openness and accountability that will be reflected in what we see and hear in the NewsWatch studio.




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