BBC rejects News UK-funded report on 5 live

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The BBC says it rejects the headline findings of a report by academics at the University of Kent into the levels of news and current affairs output on Radio 5 live.

The university’s Centre for Journalism was given a £25,000 research grant by News UK, the parent company of talkSPORT and talkRADIO operator Wireless, to produce the report, which finds that 5 live is not meeting Ofcom’s requirement that 75% of output should be news and current affairs.

The report claims the station’s 2018 output was 44.95% news and 55.05% ‘non-news’. The proportion of news and current affairs output was 48.28% on weekdays and 36.625% at weekends, it says.

Head of the Centre for Journalism, Professor Tim Luckhurst, a former Assistant Editor at 5 Live and a senior member of the team that designed and launched the station, said: “The role of news has never been more important to democratic societies. It is crucial that the public has excellent access to factual, accurate journalism. BBC Radio 5 Live was created to provide such journalism. Our research demonstrates that it is no longer fulfilling all of its commitments as a news provider. We think our findings are important both for the BBC and for its new regulator, Ofcom.”

The researchers also say 5 live has “ceased to be a news and sport station”, instead suggesting it is a “sport and talk station with a fierce commitment to sport and a lesser, legacy commitment to news”. The report also asserts that the news coverage “reveals an appetite for entertainment, celebrity and music stories in preference to public affairs.”

News UK says the research was carried out according to the University of Kent’s Standard Terms and Conditions for Research Grants, and without the company’s involvement. The university says that, in common with most research grants – public or private – it was for a specific purpose: in this case to ‘assess the delivery of BBC Radio 5 Live’s public service commitments’.

The BBC has told RadioToday that it was not consulted by the authors of the report at any stage, and says its own figures show 5 live exceeds its obligation, with 76% of output being news and current affairs programming in the 2017-18 financial year.

The corporation also says it has asked the University of Kent if it is comfortable one of its academics has been paid to write a report by an organisation that clearly has a commercial interest in the outcome. The university says that is has “made clear from the outset that the funder could not influence the conduct of the research or its outcome”.

A BBC spokesperson said: “This is shameless paid-for lobbying. Given this report was paid for by the parent company of talkSPORT, people can judge its credibility for themselves. We reject its headline findings entirely as 5 Live consistently meets all of its regulatory targets; a fact recorded in the BBC’s Annual report each year. Even a casual listener would fail to recognise the description this report presents of the station’s output.”

Responding to the findings, Wireless CEO Scott Taunton said: “Wireless is invested in offering additional choice in the speech radio market through our talkRADIO, talkSPORT and talkSPORT2 channels. We believe commercial radio’s sustainability is hampered by the BBC’s 80% share of speech radio listening and significant funding, spectrum and cross-promotional advantages. Distinctiveness is important in ensuring the public service delivery of BBC output and providing room for independent services to develop.”

Jimmy Buckland, Wireless Director of Strategy, added: “There has been significant change for the BBC in recent years, with regulatory oversight moving to Ofcom following the abolition of the BBC Trust. We are concerned that BBC Radio 5 Live’s obligations to demonstrate distinctiveness and to deliver 75% news output have not been safeguarded, resulting in a reduction in public value on behalf of licence fee payers.”

Researchers listened to 115 hours of 5 live’s output between February and October 2018 – you can read the full report here.

RadioToday’s take
If you read the full report, you’ll quickly understand why there appears to be a discrepancy between the researchers’ numbers and those from the BBC. It all comes down to what constitutes ‘news and current affairs’ – and it seems the academics’ view differs significantly from the BBC’s definition.

While the Centre for Journalism says it has used academic research to form its methodology, putting topics into boxes can, in our view, often be very subjective. At what point does a sports story stop being ‘sport’ and become ‘news’ – England being knocked out of the football World Cup in the semi-finals? A country being accused of wide-spread drug cheating in sport? A footballer’s light aircraft going missing? And where’s the line between ‘entertainment chat’ and ‘current affairs’ – A film breaking all box-office records? A discussion about a TV show that’s being watched by 8 million people? 50 prominent artists calling for Israel to be stopped from hosting the Eurovision Song Contest? It’s easy to argue such topics either way. If you use a news story as the basis for a 30-minute discussion or phone-in but it ventures deeper into the subject and away from the original issue, is that still news content or is that just ‘talk radio’?

Perhaps some clarity is needed on the definitions and the way that output is monitored. One of the report’s authors, Professor Tim Luckhurst, has told Press Gazette that Ofcom have already been in touch to say they’re interested in talking to the university researchers about their methodology. Professor Luckhurst also tells RadioToday: “Our definition of news is academically rigorous and rooted in published research. It is not remotely subjective – as our methodology makes clear. We explain precisely what we mean by news and current affairs (see the extensive methodology section). The BBC has not defined what news means – although we consider what it has said on the topic in great detail. We have published our re[port and our methodology and it is available for all to read. The BBC has not published any explanation of its own assessment that it produces 76% news and current affairs. We have repeatedly asked it to do so.”

The fact that the research has been paid for by the owners of 5 live’s commercial rivals also clearly has some influence here – even if the researchers have never had any contact with News UK. The Centre for Journalism decided to look into whether 5 live was meeting its licence requirements, and News UK handed over £25,000. We wonder whether another commercial radio group, that doesn’t have a history of complaining about 5 live’s output, might have been so willing to pay for the research to be done?

From RadioToday in May 2010: UTV says 5 Live is failing

From RadioToday in April 2011: UTV complaint to BBC rejected

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17 Comments
  1. Ian Scott says

    Echos of the Radiocentre funded report in to community radio.

  2. Mike Usher says

    When did sport cease to be news? Did I miss something?I also wonder when someone is going to conduct a survey about the amount of advertorials on Talksport promoting gambling.

  3. Radio Geordie says

    Why is this not a surprise. Of course these so-called academics are going to produce a totally biased report given that Murdoch is paying them to do so. If the BBC were not honoring their news & current affairs commitments, then wouldn’t Ofcom be investigating them? Ofcom aren’t investigating which means only one thing, they [Ofcom] agree with what the BBC calls news & current affairs.
    It’s just Murdoch having another cheap shot at the BBC just because he’s managed to prize a few so-called ‘talent’ away from them, he thinks he’s got them on the ropes.
    That’s where he’s wrong, in fact, he’s done the BBC a favour as they’ve been replaced by much cheaper ‘talent’.

    1. Rob says

      Didn’t “talent” leave because BBC totally let them down by “misunderstanding” power of HMRC?

    2. mb23 says

      Ofcom have asked the university for a copy of their report so they can review their findings.

  4. Rob says

    Echoes of HMRC’s view of BBC forming it’s own interpretation of the rule book in the recent IR35 subcontractor payment dispute. HMRC won that one. Will Ofcom be as firm?

  5. Len Groat says

    Everyone seems to be missing the juicy irony of the BBC ‘spokesperson’ saying

    “This is shameless paid-for lobbying”…

    …when the UK public are FORCED LEGALLY to PAY for a whole tranche of radio stations that are unnecessary…

    1Xtra

    5 and 6….

    …and with Radio 2 being “1990s Radio 1 regurgitated” and BBC Local Radio auditioning 18 year olds….

    …the BBC do NOT have even ONE a station catering for those over 50 !!

    1. Rob says

      eh? MOST of BBC radio is catering for over 50s… pretty much everything except R1/1Xtra

      1. Pat says

        Some would beg to differ.

    2. Mark Budgen says

      Come on Len, back to Bedroom FM. You’ve got Phil Collins to play. To about 2 listeners.

    3. Nel says

      Len,

      Radio 3, Radio 4 and radio 4 extra, radio 5, radio 5 extra and bbc local radio have a huge amount of people of 50 listening.

      Its commercial radio that does not have anything for over 50

    4. delakota555 says

      http://www.radioparadise.com

      They even have their own app for Android an iOS where you can cache the stream and slip tracks. You can listen on their webplayer or one of their streamlinks (high quality too). No adverts, news or travel! What more could you ask for? Apart from listening to Radio 4, I never listen to their other stations. Give it RP a try…

  6. Stephen Hall says

    It’s hilarious how TS constantly plead poverty, yet can afford to waste £25k on such laughable “studies”.
    If they’ve got quarter of a million spare, how about investing it in their own services, such as sending commentators to all live events, rather than regularly and dishonestly commentating off-tube?
    Or maybe plough it into an app that doesn’t constantly crash mid-stream or a listen again section on the website that isn’t missing half the content, rather than waste it on trying to knobble the competition.
    Just a thought.

    1. mb23 says

      How is £25k a quarter of a million?

  7. Stuart says

    I bet they chose a world cup week for this survey!

  8. Mark Budgen says

    We’ve known for years that Radio 5 Live is a SPORT station with news a very lesser second. It didn’t take 20k to academics to tell you that.

  9. mark budgen says

    A Typical 5 Live Schedule:

    5am Wake Up to Yuppies
    6am The Nicky Campbell Sport’s Breakfast
    10am Adrian Chile’s Sports Morning
    1pm Sports Edition
    4pm Sports Drive
    7pm 5 Live Sport
    10.30pm Sports Night
    1am Sport All Night

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