JOHN HUMPHRYS: Sorry Huw: It's now time to switch of the licence fee08/20/2021
JOHN HUMPHRYS: Sorry Huw, here is the news: It’s now time to switch off the licence fee
Huw Edwards and I once had lunch. He wanted to pick my brains because he’d just been made presenter of the Ten O’Clock News and I’d been a newsreader for years.
I was tempted to say: ‘Are you mad! It’s the most boring job in journalism. All that’s really required of you is that you can read an autocue without fluffing too often and look terribly serious.’
Or maybe: ‘Jammy sod! You’ll get paid a shedload of money by the BBC and become so famous lots of rich corporations will want to pay you even more for gracing their grand dinners and conferences.’
Ask any young person when they last watched the news on telly and they will look slightly baffled
But I suspect he knew all that anyway.
What I really should have said was: ‘Don’t try to cling on for too long. Diversity will be the new religion at the BBC and old white men on telly will become surplus to requirements. And anyway, there’s a new broadcasting era on the horizon.
‘Those massive audiences for the main news bulletins will start to melt faster than a snowflake in the Sahara.’
That lunch happened 18 years ago. This week Huw declared he’s finally had enough. He didn’t put it quite like that, but he hit 60 on Wednesday and he said in an interview: ‘I think it’s fair for viewers to get a change.’
By yesterday morning, rather bizarrely, he seemed to have had a change of mind. He tweeted: ‘Delighted to confirm my retirement plans for… 2041.’
Sadly for the octogenarian Huw it’s vanishingly unlikely that the News At Ten will even exist in 20 years time. The bigger question is whether the BBC will.
When I presented the Nine O’Clock News in the Eighties the audience hovered between eight and nine million. Today, the ‘Ten’ has barely half that number. I’d love to claim that my legions of fans just couldn’t face the news without me. The truth is they barely noticed I’d gone. What’s changed is choice.
As Huw was settling into the newsreading chair at Television Centre, a little company in California was struggling to rent out DVDs. Remember DVDs?
Then they had a better idea: Streaming programmes. Viewers would pay a modest subscription to watch the programme in their own time.
The little company was Netflix. Now it has 209million subscribers and revenue of $25billion. It is just one of the many streaming giants stealing viewers from the BBC.
But there is an even bigger threat out there that strikes at the very heart and soul of the BBC. It is aimed at news and current affairs.
Ask any young person when they last watched the news on telly and they will look slightly baffled.
‘Umm… no idea. I don’t watch it at all. Why would I?’
Why indeed, when they have a little gadget that’s never more than a few inches away, is as vital to their existence as the air they breathe and tells them instantly what’s happening out there?
Why in heaven’s name would they settle down in front of the television at a time dictated by a broadcaster to watch a programme that will contain mostly stuff that doesn’t reflect their own interests when their mobile will give them everything they want whenever they want it?
Not just the latest gossip on the shenanigans of their favourite rap artist but, for the more serious minded, as much academic material as they might need about the economic implications of global warming. Or whatever they choose. The internet is the most accessible store of information in history and algorithms are making it more accessible by the second.
The BBC’s viewing figures tell the grim story. They have gone into a steep decline and more and more younger people seem barely aware that BBC News exists.
The latest nonsense of inviting staff to be addressed as ‘they’ rather than ‘he’ or ‘she’ is a worrying example
Today’s addiction to mobiles is no passing fad. It will continue until something even more addictive takes its place. You can’t turn the technical clock back. Never have, never will.
And mobiles will increasingly dominate our lives until technology comes up with something that will render them as quaint and obsolete as the technology they have superseded. We won’t be going back to the telly for our news. Ever.
The first and most obvious casualty in this relentless battle for hearts and minds is the licence fee. It has served the nation magnificently but — and I write this with heavy heart — its time has come. It is simply unacceptable to charge people a fee for something they may not be using.
No longer can the BBC defend its drama or light entertainment on the basis that no one else does it so well. They can and do. The same applies to sport — assuming we are happy to pay. Why should we not pay to watch Strictly?
News is different. A vibrant democracy relies on freedom of expression. Newspapers like the Mail and, yes, The Guardian, express their opinions vigorously and so they should. Correction. So they must. We need BBC News precisely because it does not have opinions. Another correction. It must not have opinions. There are some ominous clouds on that horizon. I am one of many who worry that the big bosses are scared of the woke warriors — especially on gender issues.
The latest nonsense of inviting staff to be addressed as ‘they’ rather than ‘he’ or ‘she’ is a worrying example.
The BBC has made some hideous mistakes and, worse, tried to cover them up. The Martin Bashir affair was immensely damaging.
But they have to be set against a century of often brilliant reporting from around the world and it has earned its reputation as the most trusted news broadcaster in the land. These are scary times when so many gullible people believe whatever rubbish they’re told on social media. Never have we needed a trusted national news broadcaster more. So how do we pay for it? Subscription is not the answer. Nobody should be denied access to a truly independent news service. I fear there’s only one way. Taxation. I know that won’t be popular.
Some will say why not sell advertising? Because it would hammer the likes of ITN and Sky who rely on their income from commercials. And taxation is fairer.
The BBC spends £348million a year on news and current affairs and there are about 30 million taxpayers. So if they all paid the same it would cost about £11 a head, compared to the £159 licence fee. But, of course, we don’t all pay the same in tax. The poorest would pay little or nothing. The richest would pay the most.
However you look at it, it’s a vanishingly small price to pay for a news service that’s truly reliable and impartial whatever the pressure from vested interests.
Whether a dedicated BBC news service would meet those standards remains to be seen. As does the bigger question of whether its audience will include the young.
As someone who celebrated yet another birthday this week (I fear I shall never see 40 again), I should welcome the latest research from Georgetown University in the States.
You know how we ancients are meant to experience ‘senior moments’? Well, we don’t. Or at least, not as many as we’d thought. The researchers looked at three neural networks located in different parts of the brain.
The ‘alerting’ network deals with how ready we are to cope with new information. The ‘executive’ network deals with how good we are at sifting out distractions and focusing on the task in hand. And the ‘orienting’ network on our ability to concentrate on a specific priority.
Now, of course, we have smart phones so I need never get lost again. Which is great — except that I keep losing my phone
The bad news is that, as we age, we become less capable of handling new information. But the good news is that the other two actually improve with old age.
I confess I find that a little puzzling.
I have no sense of direction, which you might think is connected to the ‘orienting’ network. But apparently not. When I was 21 my boss sent me to report on the opening of the Severn Bridge by the Queen. I got lost and missed the opening.
My humiliation turned out to be a blessing. I vowed that I would become a television news reporter — purely on the basis that I would go everywhere with a film crew and the sound recordist was always responsible for navigating.
It worked. Now, of course, we have smart phones so I need never get lost again.
Which is great — except that I keep losing my phone.
Old age maybe..?
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