How BBC’s breaking news alerts are giving voters – and political parties – an electoral buzz | General election 2024

The most powerful person in British media during this election, in terms of having the most direct access to voters, is no longer the editor of BBC’s News at Six or the person who chooses the headlines on Radio 2. Nor are they a newspaper editor, a TikTok influencer, or a podcaster. Instead, they’re the anonymous on-shift editor of the BBC News app, making snap judgments on whether to make the phones of millions of Britons buzz with a breaking news push alert.

The BBC does not publish user numbers, but external research suggests about 12.6 million Britons have its news app installed. BBC newsroom sources say the actual number is higher and the assumption is that about 60% of users have notifications enabled. This means that on a conservative estimate, a typical push alert is reaching the phones of 7 million Britons – more than any other broadcast news bulletin in the UK.

Craig Oliver, David Cameron’s former director of communications, said influencing the BBC’s coverage was the main objective for all political press officers. This used to mean phoning the editors of specific television news shows. Now the focus is shifting online: “The sheer scale of the website alone and its breaking news alerts is huge. Once something gets into the water supply of the BBC, it’s very hard to get it out.”

The audience for the BBC’s News at Six, the most-watched television news show in the country, is down to about 3.5 million viewers – and its audience is ageing; the average BBC One television viewer is now in their 60s. Print newspaper front pages remain heavily analysed, but their reach has collapsed. Twenty years ago, the Sun still sold 3.5m copies a day. Now the biggest selling print newspaper is the Daily Mail, on 700,000 copies.

All have been quietly overtaken by the the BBC News app push alert, which was only widely adopted a decade ago. An alert can drive readers to open the full news story – or its headline can exist as a standalone nugget of news, a 25-word summary destined to remain unclicked. Some people are driven to distraction by breaking news buzzes, while others grab their phones the moment they see them arrive.

Other outlets – especially Sky News and the Guardian – also have millions of Britons using their news apps. But it’s hard to compete with the sheer scale and reach of the national broadcaster. If you have ever been on a busy train when a BBC push alert is sent, the chances are you’ll hear dozens of phones buzz in unison, making it one of the few truly mass broadcast mediums remaining.

There was recently a panic in the BBC newsroom after a software update inadvertently gave hundreds of journalists the ability to publish a news story as a breaking news event. Given that many staff in the newsroom are facing redundancy, there was a lingering concern that an irate employee might take the opportunity to send an election-disrupting alert.

Yet the decision-making process for what gets sent to readers is somewhat ad-hoc, and the phrasing depends to an extent on which editors are on shift or available on Microsoft Teams to tweak the wording. Rishi Sunak’s Saturday night announcement about a new national service didn’t get an alert – although readers were later told that the home secretary thought it was a good idea, while Labour felt it was a “desperate gimmick”.

Keir Starmer’s team will have been pleased with a post-election alert quoting him as saying Labour would “only make commitments we can fulfil”. Analysis columns are increasingly flagged – such as a column by Laura Kuenssberg entitled “What could possibly go wrong for Labour leader Keir Starmer? A lot, actually.”

Political parties are belatedly catching up and trying to influence what gets sent out. Last month, the Mail on Sunday was briefed that the Conservatives were “tracking the BBC’s news coverage” ahead of the election and singled out the BBC’s news website for providing a “diet of woke bias”. The anonymous Conservative source complained that the website was dedicating more coverage to Tory scandals (such as MP Mark Menzies demanding money to pay off “bad people”) than to Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner’s council house sale.

skip past newsletter promotion

These concerns have also reached the BBC board. In January, the broadcaster’s editorial standards committee – consisting of four people, including Theresa May’s ex-spokesperson Robbie Gibb – launched an “assessment of news alerts” on the BBC’s app. This task has been handed to David Grossman, a former Newsnight journalist who now works as the BBC’s senior editorial policy adviser. Although this work pre-dated the election, news staff are aware that each alert is being monitored for impartiality.

This election could be the one where these alerts become recognised as the digital equivalent of the newspaper front page, blaring a top-line summary of an event to the public.

Oliver, the former Downing Street director of communications, said politicians were often slow to realise what the public were actually consuming. He said: “When I was in government, the 8am bulletin on Radio 2 was the biggest news outlet in the UK. No political operative ever listened to it.”


This website uses cookies. By continuing to use this site, you accept our use of cookies.