BBC rejects Bell's 'dumbing down' claim

BBC head of newsgathering Vin Ray has hit back at Martin Bell’s criticism of the "dumbing down" of the Six O’Clock News.

Bell criticised the bulletin’s use of visual aids such as video screens to display graphics and maps news.

But Ray said the 6pm bulletin was "only doing exactly what the audience has been telling us we should do for years – sticking to a serious news agenda but working much harder to make stories clear and engaging.

"Perhaps every cue into a big board should carry the warning, ‘Some broadsheet commentators may find this report patronising’," he said.

Writing for BBC News’s internal magazine, Ray said that far from being a US import, the video wall had been inspired by "that bastion of tabloid values" Newsnight.

Ray, who recently took part in a Radio Five Live discussion with Bell about his allegations of dumbing down at the BBC, said that five years ago news items on the Six O’Clock News were "utterly predictable, with long, complicated cues" and "often impenetrable pieces".

Bell, a BBC journalist for 35 years, launched a broadside against the "management whim" that had replaced traditional news reporting with video walls, live broadcasts and "much waving about of arms". In his article in The Independent last month, he also criticised The Reporter’s Friend, the handbook written by Ray for BBC journalists, for its assault on traditional news reporting values.

But Ray, who worked as a producer with Bell in Sarajevo and was with him when he was injured, dismissed the idea that their coverage was part of "a golden age of news".

"I really question how much he and I – or rather the BBC as a whole – were giving our viewers during the Bosnian war. He told the story of the day, often brilliantly, but did the viewers really understand what was going on? Frankly, I doubt it.

"What was really golden about it was the lack of competition –the lack of alternatives for viewers and the blissful ignorance of what viewers thought about what we did."

By Julie Tomlin

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