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September 20, 2019updated 30 Sep 2022 8:21am

BBC chief says Brexit election will be ‘as challenging as any in my lifetime’

By Charlotte Tobitt

The head of the BBC has said a general election based around Brexit “will be as challenging as any the BBC has reported on in my lifetime”.

Speaking at the Royal Television Society conference in Cambridge yesterday, Lord Tony Hall said covering an election on the topic that has divided Britain will be “an immense task” and a “bumpy road”.

“It will not mean reporting both sides of the argument, it will mean reflecting all sides of the argument – right across the UK – so that our audiences fully understand what is at stake,” he said.

“But I am confident we can demonstrate the BBC’s unique value to democracy in a unique election.”

The BBC’s director general also said broadcasters must “make a song and dance” about ensuring politicians are put up for scrutiny on TV and that quizzing them at length in interviews is “absolutely key”.

He warned that politicians like US President Donald Trump, who bypass the press by using social media, were avoiding “proper scrutiny” – a tactic increasingly seen among political leaders in the UK.

Lord Hall said: “I think it is really important that people put themselves up on Sky as well as on the BBC, as well as on Channel 4, as well as on ITV, for long-form interview.

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“Proper scrutiny – it’s all well and good saying you can rely, as Trump does for example, on Twitter or whatever else it may be. Putting people up for proper examination in a long-form interview is really important.”

Last month Channel 4’s head of news Dorothy Byrne called Johnson and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn “cowards” for avoiding TV interviews and said the “dramatic fall in politicians holding themselves up to proper scrutiny on TV… has, in my view, become critical for our democracy”.

On his last Today programme yesterday, John Humphrys said politicians who prioritise social media over traditional media “can choose the questions they answer without being challenged”.

He was backed up by former prime ministers Tony Blair and David Cameron, which Lord Hall said was “very good to see”.

“These places where those in power can be quizzed at length, not just on the hop somewhere, are absolutely key,” Lord Hall said. “We should do everything we can to encourage politicians to come along for them.”

Asked what broadcasters could do when politicians refused, he said: “We have to make a song and dance that they should come on these programmes.

“In the end if they don’t want to, well, of course we have got a problem. I believe you can get others to come on.”

In particular, Lord Hall said both the long-form and Question Time formats are “important parts of our democracy”.

“What do you do? You keep arguing for them and keep arguing for the importance of them.”

Lord Hall revealed the BBC would announce changes to its local radio services this autumn to fill gaps where “other local media is retreating, leaving great swathes of the country unserved and unreported”.

Ofcom changed the minimum hours for locally-produced radio content last year leading to hundreds of job losses and 11 local studio closures at Global Radio, which owns Capital, Heart and Smooth.

Global has said there was no change to its local news output and that its news team in fact grew by ten per cent, creating new roles.

Lord Hall said the BBC would “create new models for local” to “reflect peoples’ identity and that very real sense of belonging we all feel for where we live”.

“We have a lot of work to do, but let me be clear. This is about improving the clarity and the quality of what we do across England.

“It’s about being more local, not less, and giving a voice to communities who otherwise aren’t being heard.”

Lord Hall also revealed proposals to move more BBC services out of London, saying that despite progress in the diversity of women and BAME staff it still faces vast geographical differences.

“Imagine a world in which the BBC moved still more out of London,” he said. “We could be really radical here.

“Now I know all the risks. It would take time. It would cost money. It could be hugely disruptive. But what an enormous creative and operational opportunity.”

Additional reporting by PA.

Read the full speech by Lord Tony Hall.

Picture: Channel 4 News

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