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30 November 2023

Can anyone save the BBC from itself?

The cuts to Newsnight are a symptom of a broadcaster increasingly devoted to unchallenging content.

By Roger Mosey

There are no reports yet of mass protests outside New Broadcasting House. The cuts being made to BBC Two’s former flagship programme Newsnight are deep, with half of its 57 staff – including its dedicated reporting team – set to lose their jobs. But the relatively sanguine response from the public confirms the BBC management view that the programme isn’t what it was when Jeremy Paxman was at his peak and when agenda-setting stories began there. It has lost saliency in the noisy digital world, and its audience has dwindled. Television and radio programmes come and go, and the twist of fate for Newsnight is that it will endure in a shortened form, stripped of resources, as a ghost of times past.

The latest announcements, with a range of further cuts being made across BBC News, may not seem to matter too much: they’re just the latest stage of an erosion caused by the sparse financial settlement imposed on the broadcaster by the government. A flat licence fee at a time when inflation was soaring was bound to lead to pain. But the BBC is an organisation with a total income of £5.7bn, of which £3.7bn comes from the UK licence fee, and therefore it is also a matter of choice – and public interest – where it decides to cut back. The question is simple: has it got its priorities right?

These are times in which, surely, news matters more than ever. As the world becomes more complex and dangerous, fair and impartial reporting is essential for everyone who wants to make sense of the latest developments. My personal view is that the BBC has done well overall in its reporting of Ukraine and the Middle East, and the storms of online protest – some justified, some not – reflect just how important public service broadcasting remains. A common zone in the media for facts and the widest possible range of opinions is necessary for a functioning democracy.

Therefore the BBC needs to justify why it continually chips away at news budgets while still churning out derivative entertainment programmes and daytime schedule filler. It’s hard to imagine what editors were thinking when they commissioned Survivor – a creaking global format that had been bought and then dumped by ITV, and which has delivered for BBC One a predictable combination of high cost and low audiences. An equally unwise resuscitation of Gladiators is promised for 2024.

[See also: Rishi Sunak should stop trying to appease the Tory right]

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That is the context not just for Newsnight’s loss of its excellent (and much cheaper) reporters, but for the same process across BBC radio. The Today programme used to have a team of dedicated reporters – including future stars such as Bill Turnbull, Clive Myrie, Winifred Robinson and Jeremy Vine – who made engrossing and often investigative radio. The same was true until relatively recently for the other Radio 4 news programmes and for 5 Live. I would not be able to defend the financial efficiency of these arrangements, but I absolutely would still praise their journalism – and now that has finally disappeared. The posts have gone and everything has been centralised, with a dramatic reduction in editorial freedom and diversity.

BBC insiders talk about other insidious effects of the cutbacks. “The experienced output editors have left,” says one, “taking many decades of experience and wisdom.” This means that on-air mistakes, when they are made, are much more likely to be the result of inexperience than they are of some great conspiracy. The BBC is not systematically biased on most of the big international issues, but it does have thin staffing rotas, which can lead to wobbly judgements under pressure.

There is also an unhelpful focus on questionable metrics. BBC bosses regularly congratulate themselves about the number of hits online and on social media platforms such as TikTok, with a dodgy elision between audience clicks and proper journalism. The CEO of BBC News, Deborah Turness, accompanied the latest announcements by saying they “continue our ‘shapeshift’ from broadcast to digital”.

Watch: Ash Sarkar and Ian Dunt join the New Statesman podcast to discuss the new balance of access, trust and lobbying in the digital age.

It is clearly right to invest more in the BBC’s digital operation, but it does need to produce content that the market can’t. At the time of writing, the BBC website includes news about Jamie Lynn Spears quitting I’m a Celebrity, an item about Beyonce’s mother and a video clip of a teenager steering a runaway bus away from a petrol pump – in Australia. Turness will need to deliver on her promise of a “new drive” to bring “the depth and analytical strength” of BBC journalism to online audiences, because too often now the BBC News website and app feature content that falls well short of being world-leading in its quality. The BBC still has a huge team in Westminster and around the country for its political reporting, but ask yourself: is the BBC News site where you would look if you wanted to know about the big forces that are shaping our times, or simply to find out what’s really going on in the cabinet and shadow cabinet?

So Newsnight matters not so much for itself as for the loss of another flash of colour – one of the programmes that could think for itself, be clever, go against the grain. The risk for BBC News is that it relies more on content that is adequate but unchallenging; and it may be that we do, after all, need to head to central London with our protest placards to save the BBC from itself.

[See also: John Simpson: My part in the BBC’s Hamas controversy]

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