Rumour or raw data?: Why the BBC is worried about Sky News

An article on the front page of the Observer’s Business & Media section today carries headline “BBC news admits ‘opinion-formers’ prefer Sky”.

The report (have a look at the online article here) is based on a leaked email Peter Horrocks, head of TV news at the BBC, sent to journalists and senior executives on Wednesday last week. Mr Horrocks is talking about a BBC documentary, The Day the Bombs Came (shown on Thursday) that apparently gave a good deal of attention to Sky News’s reporting of the events on July 7th as they unfolded and included a comment from the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Sir Ian Blair, that he “switched on Sky like everyone else” to find out what was going on.

Mr Horrocks took the comment as an illustration of how BBC News 24, the corporation’s rolling news channel, was lagging behind Sky News with key opinion formers. Actually, News 24 gets more viewers, and Sky’s figures are down, but still the BBC feels insecure about News 24’s performance, apparently.

On that terrible day in July, I watched both channels on and off. My recollection was that Sky did indeed have the edge on the BBC throughout the morning and afternoon. By the time it got to the evening and it was time for some analysis and reflection I watched BBC Newsnight.

Sky News was more useful in the day because it was prepared to report rumour and speculation while the BBC seemed to be more conservative, more careful to check facts. The BBC was being more responsible by one measure, at a time when rumours might stir up unnecessary panic. But in terms of reporting breaking news  as it happened, it was at a disadvantage.

My point is, I wanted the unconfirmed reports and the speculation, precisely because everything was so unclear in the moment. I wanted the “raw data”, the “raw feed” if you will, and would turn to the BBC later for the verified facts on its scheduled evening programmes. I wonder if on some level that’s why also why Sir Ian Blair switches on Sky and not the Beeb when major incident like this takes place?

Interesting to consider this in parallel to discussion of the changing role of the BBC in news gathering and reporting which I wrote about in a post you can view here. Many have viewed the reporting around the events as a “tipping point” for the use of consumer generated news content or “citizen journalism”.

Maybe this is the lesson that News 24 needs to take from this: as well as learning about how to make best use of citizen journalists content, perhaps it needs to be more comfortable in providing unfiltered, or less filtered, content if it is compete with Sky in those moment of a breaking news story.

But when you’re a professional journalist with the kind of standards and reputation for trust the BBC has that probably goes against the grain.

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By Antony Mayfield

I'm Antony Mayfield - to find out more about me take a look at my LinkedIn profile (see the button on the home page). You can contact me by email at antony [dot] mayfield [at] gmail [dot] com. Google