Working for the BBC is a job that should come with hazard pay, even if you’re doing nothing more dangerous than producing a show for Radio 1 from the London studios. Our national broadcaster has become, in many ways, our national punching bag. Each one of our increasingly divided political factions mobilises its supporters to say they get a uniquely bad ride thanks to the BBC. Brexiteers, Corbynites, Scottish independence supporters and several other movements are united solely by their view that the BBC is impossibly biased against them.
But no one is more vocal about BBC bias than this government. Only in January the Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries declared war on the BBC’s “left-wing bias”. Indeed, the BBC has faced budget freezes and cuts for more than a decade, and has only just offloaded a largely unjustifiable decision to saddle it with the costs of free licence fees for older adults. It also faces even bigger cuts to come thanks to Dorries, who is freezing the licence fee and pledging that the BBC won’t get another charter renewal under the new licence fee model.
The BBC can never win. When it runs popular programming it can sell for a profit overseas it gets criticised for encroaching on commercial media’s territory. When it makes material for niche audiences it gets criticised for not appealing to the British mainstream. Whether financially, journalistically, or operationally, the BBC is in a lose-lose situation. That can also make it a less than ideal place to work, even though many people are devoted to its ideals and work there for decades. Moreover, pay for all but the most visible on-air talent tends to be less than generous, and progression is slow. It is not uncommon across departments for people to be performing a role two pay grades above their “regular” job, sometimes for years at a time. It is not always a good place for those looking to make their career in a hurry.
This is starting to come to something of a crisis point for the organisation. Some of the BBC’s presenters and correspondents are leaving for commercial opportunities: Newsnight’s Emily Maitlis and the former North America editor Jon Sopel have quit to launch a podcast with Global, produced by a start-up founded by Dino Sofos, the producer who conceived Brexitcast. Some aspects of the BBC’s exodus should be of particular concern to the corporation, and may reflect the reality of it being regularly dragged into culture wars, on top of problems of internal culture at the BBC. The Times reported this week about an exodus of senior staff from diverse ethnic backgrounds (disclosure: one person named in the article, Rozina Breen, is departing to become chief executive of The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, where I work as global editor). Elsewhere, VICE has reported an exodus of LGBT staff from the BBC over allegations of transphobia within the organisation’s output.
Such are the difficulties of BBC culture at the moment that some of the most prominent jobs in journalism are proving hard to fill. Major candidates for political editor of the BBC — a job which pays well into the six figures and comes with huge screentime — have ruled themselves out of the running. And then the problems at home, of course, are nothing compared to what BBC staff currently face in Russia and Ukraine, with journalists facing expulsion in the former and coming under literal fire in the latter.
Ironically, the crisis in Ukraine has reminded many of those at home why they value the BBC and why we all need it. Even Nadine Dorries took to the dispatch box yesterday, 3 March, to praise the BBC and its vital role. Its staff must be hoping that the government will remember that feeling as the crisis abates — or the BBC might not still be there the next time things go wrong.