The 'George Alagiah effect': how BBC News at Six holds firm as the UK's biggest bulletin

Covering the most powerful media companies to the smartest startups, former Independent media editor Ian Burrell examines the fraught problem of how news is funded today. Follow Ian @iburrell.

Call it the ‘George Alagiah effect’ – the broad popularity of the presenter has helped BBC News at Six withstand the Brexit tumult and hold its position as the most-watched bulletin in the UK.

At a time in political history when emotions are running high, the BBC is under assault from all sides over Brexit coverage. Yet the deliberately warmer tone of its early evening news programme is drawing an unrivalled audience of 5.5 million. “I try to be as approachable and accessible as possible, I think perhaps a little more relaxed,” Alagiah tells The Drum.

But he admits that BBC News was caught off guard by the EU referendum result in 2016, and says News at Six now benefits from a better understanding of life outside the Westminster bubble.

“There’s no question about it, after 23 June 2016, we did sit down, all of us did and said, ‘Right, we didn’t expect that’,” he says. “I think that if anything the Six has come to the fore there, because with our greater emphasis on regions and nations I think we have heard more and more of the voices from around the country.

“I have certainly been conscious of that and the team has. We mustn’t let go of that. That way, Brexit has had an impact on us; we have made sure that we are reaching all parts of Britain and doing it in a more conscious way, perhaps, than we might have done before.”

BBC News at Six has a greater focus on the UK’s regions and nations than the BBC’s later 10pm bulletin. It doubles the BBC One audience at 6pm as viewers continue to make an appointment for a snapshot of the day’s news. The performance underscores the value of the traditional TV bulletin format when media platforms are fragmenting, and audiences with them.

Alagiah makes a conscious effort when writing his script to avoid the charged atmosphere of social media, where criticism of BBC Brexit coverage abounds. “When I write my cues – the headlines – I’m not thinking about the kind of people who follow me or who I follow on Twitter, because I don’t think that’s where our audience is,” he says.

“I’m thinking of someone [not on social media] in Manchester, someone in Edinburgh, or someone in Winchester. That’s how I frame my language and the tone of the programme. I think we are right to be thinking of those people. You get a very warped sense of what’s going on in the world and how the world thinks of news stories if you do it through social media, and I’m thinking particularly about Twitter.”

He also argues that the broad scale of the BBC’s output leads to unjustified attacks on the integrity of the organisation’s newsroom. “Obviously the BBC comes in for criticism, but you have got to distinguish News from everything else the BBC does and I think sometimes there’s a conflation of some things; there might be arguments about Question Time or whatever.”

Paul Royall, editor of both BBC News at Six and BBC News at Ten, describes the early evening programme’s ratings as “really robust”. It is seen by around one in four UK adults each week.

Channel 4 News, a rival in the early evening schedules, has complained of “Brexit fatigue” as a cause of audience decline in the past year. Royall denies this has been the case with News at Six.

“The difference with Brexit is that it is highly polarised and there are many layers and aspects to it as well; it has affected political life, public life, social life, in that respect there has not been a story quite like it in recent times, so it is undoubtedly challenging to cover,” he says. “But I have never felt as editor that we have suffered or the audience has suffered from Brexit fatigue."

Royall believes that “in a world of flux”, political uncertainty has helped draw viewers to Alagiah and his team. “People want to know what the news is but they are also getting it from a trusted source and friend.”

Alagiah is “fully and actively involved in the production process and the writing of the programme”, Royall notes. “He plays that role of the outsider who is coming in…and asking questions about our choices and what we are doing and sort of being on the side of the audience. That’s a really critical role.”

The presenter, who is 63, has worked on News at Six since 2003, and been its lead anchor since 2007. During his career as a foreign correspondent, he covered the Rwandan genocide, reported from conflicts in Afghanistan and Liberia and interviewed former South African president Nelson Mandela.

In 2014 he was diagnosed with bowel cancer. His return to the newsroom in January was celebrated by BBC colleagues and viewers, but last month it was revealed that he needed further treatment. “It’s interesting the letters that I have had,” he says. “The relationship is of one friend writing to another, that’s the way people have responded to the good news and the bad news about my health.”

He stresses that he has never “cultivated” this intimacy, but hopes that his informal presenting style and the familiarity of a long career have helped to build a sense of trust. "I have been at the BBC for 30 years and some of these people have watched me with a full head of hair and running around the world – they have kind of grown up with me."

Early in his time as a News at Six presenter he had to apologise for a minor error by the bulletin, an admission of error that caused distress to the editor of the time but not to Alagiah. “I said ‘I am not embarrassed in the slightest’ because [the audience] are my mates, but what they would have been offended by is if I had just tried to slide past [the error], as if it just didn’t happen.”

There is more to News at Six than its lead anchor. The programme is focused on what Royall calls the “mass, mainstream BBC One audience” and looks to break agenda-setting stories such as the suicide of 14-year-old Molly Russell, whose family blamed her death on self-harm imagery she viewed on Instagram.

The bulletin has its pick of the BBC’s star journalists.

“[It] is the biggest news programme in the country by quite a long way… it absolutely should be the home for our expert talent and editors,” says Royall, name-checking the likes of political editor Laura Kuenssberg, Europe Editor Katya Adler and America editor Jon Sopel. “They want to be on the programme because it’s a big platform to talk and explain to the country.”

The BBC evening bulletins have a symbiotic relationship but subtly different approaches, Royall says. “At 6pm there’s probably more going on in someone’s house than there might be at 10 o’clock… they are making the tea or sorting the kids out, it’s a different dynamic. Come 10 o’clock at night people are generally sitting down and have actively opted to watch the news.”

Alagiah says News at Six is more “digestible” compared to his early days on it. “It was all quite preachy and quite academic and now the Six makes a real effort to bring it down into real life.”

Some might regard anchor-led TV news as in inexorable decline as new platforms emerge for viewing on the move, from Apple News and Facebook Watch to Bloomberg’s social media-based TicToc. But Royall has seen the bulletin format written off before. “The death of the bulletin was predicted when rolling news channels started 20 years ago,” he recalls.

Alagiah sees News at Six as part of an ecosystem that includes the BBC news channel and the BBC News app. “I don’t think it’s either or, actually. I think of myself and the programme we put out at Six as a gateway,” he says. “We are like the front page of a broadsheet paper.”

Young people might struggle with that analogy, just as they struggle to see the point of linear TV viewing. Royall is philosophical. “We don’t want to scare off our core, heartland audience,” he notes. After ending free TV licences for all over-75s, the BBC must be careful not to neglect older viewers.

“I think we need to be careful about what some people call an obsession with youth,” Alagiah muses. “Before I had a mortgage and kids, I’m not sure that I was sitting there every day watching the News at Six when Nick Witchell, or whoever it was, was presenting it. I don’t think the world has changed that much. I’m not being naive or ignorant but I think we have to be careful – there’s a sense of it was ever thus.”

As the enduring popularity of Alagiah and the bulletin format shows, familiarity can triumph in a time of flux.

Ian Burrell's column, The News Business, is published on The Drum each Thursday. Follow Ian on Twitter @iburrell

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