Phil Harding is a journalist and broadcaster, former editor of the Radio 4 Today programme and Controller of Editorial Policy at the BBC. Here he looks at the crucial but changing role broadcast media in the UK plays in delivering global news.
There has never been a more important time for us to know about the rest of the world. Our everyday lives are increasingly affected by a world that is becoming ever more inter-connected. Contracts are won, jobs are lost, families’ standards of living are often determined by decisions made on the other side of the planet. Factories are closed at the stroke of a pen thousands of miles away. The failure of the rice crop in Indonesia puts up the prices on our supermarket shelves.
More and more people are either being forced to or are choosing to live far from where they were born. In London schools more than 300 languages are spoken, in Manchester 72 languages. In a world of increasing migration to know the world is to know your street. Yet in this country survey after survey appears to show that we know frighteningly little about the rest of the world. The Brexit referendum reinforced that.
For Britons to understand and have control over their lives in today’s changing world we need to know about the forces that are shaping events across the globe. The media, especially the broadcast media, have a crucial role to play in this. Broadcast coverage of the wider world matters.
That’s why in this context it is disappointing that Channel Four have announced that they intend to cut back on their excellent Unreported World series from 16 episodes a year to 12. This is despite the fact that the Channel in its last Annual Report picked out the award-winning series as one of the programmes that epitomised the very spirit and values of the Channel boasting that “our delivery of Current Affairs will continue to grow, building on the success of Unreported World and Dispatches ...”
The Channel has blamed the economic downturn and the lack of advertising revenue for the cuts. Channel Four is a commercially funded public broadcaster. It can only spend what it takes in in advertising and commercial income.
The Channel has to manage its finances according to its income. But it seems both unfortunate and strange that such an important and valued part of its output should be cut so soon after it had been lauded so loudly and at a time when international output on our airwaves is needed more than ever. The decision was taken by the previous management team at Four and those close to the programme are now hoping that the incoming Director of Programmes (and former editor of Newsnight), Ian Katz, will find a way to reverse it.
The risk for British audiences is plain. Without a continued commitment to programmes such as Unreported World, programming about the wider world on British television will become first marginalised and then disappear altogether. By the time anyone realises it has gone it will be too late.