Party politics 

17 December 2008 tbs.pm/997

The BBC and Channel 4 go to war over which hosts the most lavish parties

This new spat between ITN/Channel 4 and the BBC, which was caused by a report on last night’s Channel 4 News that revealed how much the BBC spent (£45,572) on the launch party for Merlin, does tend to suggest that ITN (and Channel 4) are now starting to panic as to the outcome of the public debate in relation to Channel 4’s future.

Was Channel 4 News really being non-partisan or is there a genuine case to answer in relation to how much the BBC spends on its hospitality? Bear in mind that hospitality also falls under the category of public relations, which is something that the BBC has seemed to lack in recent months, ironically due to an apparently slow-reacting PR department.

So in theory the BBC needs all the good PR it can get, and this extends to the programmes as well as its general public image. And given the poor initial response to recent crises (Crowngate, Sachsgate, etc.), it’s especially ironic that PR should be the source of more friction between an increasingly nervous ITN and the BBC.

Although Channel 4 executives apparently had no prior knowledge of the Channel 4 News accusations, it’s not difficult to see the simmering tensions in relation to the BBC that are jointly shared at this moment in time between ITN and Channel 4, even though Channel 4 and its executives may not have sanctioned (or agreed with) such direct criticism.

Merlin was the new flagship drama for BBC One’s autumn season, therefore such an important commission requires all the positive publicity it can garner from the commercial media. Therefore a lavish launch party is arguably essential in order to get as much attention as possible amongst the numerous journalists that work for media outlets.

The BBC has to compete for attention with commercial broadcasters as well as requiring promotional space within commercial media such as newspapers, magazines and other TV channels, and it’s strongly arguable that if the BBC doesn’t promote its programmes properly then there’s little point in the BBC making good programmes that people want to watch.

As the BBC operates alongside its commercial rivals, there will always be a need to operate on similar terms in order to compete for attention in a crowded media market, although the continuing debacle over the salary of Jonathan Ross and his production company should warn of the pitfalls in relation to what the BBC should (or shouldn’t) do.

The simple fact is that modern good quality drama series cost a lot of money to produce in order to achieve the kind of production values that most people expect to see nowadays, especially as some American broadcasters are now spending huge amounts of money on television series such as Heroes.

Now if such an expensive launch party had been held for, say, Cash in the Attic, then important questions could legitimately be asked in relation to the potential for wasting money, and excessive daily expenses claims were supposedly dealt with years ago as part of BBC management’s earlier attempts to cut costs.

Channel 4 News presenter Jon Snow has openly admitted that he is in favour of the BBC handing over some of its licence fee to Channel 4 – and no doubt those who work at ITN would find favour with such a proposal as well – but we have to assume that editors and management could justify such public criticism to a certain degree, even if only to themselves.

As a related side issue, I have been slightly concerned in relation to the general direction that Channel 4 News has occasionally taken in recent weeks; case in point was a recent news item that interviewed people who were friends and neighbours of Shannon Matthews.

Now given the general interest shown in the case combined with the pretense that these interviews were to set the record straight in relation to so-called bias in the coverage of the story by certain newspapers, the news item could be justified under these terms alone. But I was still left with a slightly uneasy feeling as a result of this feature’s inclusion.

Don’t get me wrong – Channel 4 News is still far superior to most rival news bulletins, including (sadly) some of the BBC’s mainstream news coverage – but blatantly obvious and petty points scoring in relation to the BBC does tend to reflect badly on what should be a relatively impartial news bulletin – this isn’t really subtle bias in terms of inclusion.

And is likely to have no outcome whatsoever in relation to the future of Channel 4.