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30 January 2020

The BBC is taking a wrecking ball to its greatest successes

Haphazard cuts to valued programmes are no solution to the corporation’s existential crisis.

By Roger Mosey

Who would want to be an editor at BBC News these days? Sarah Sands certainly doesn’t, and she will leave the editorship of the Today programme later this year – making her announcement this morning swiftly after the major £80m package of cuts revealed to BBC staff yesterday.

I have had my differences with Sands about the way she edited the programme, which I expressed in a New Statesman piece in 2017. As it happens, I thought she later brought Today back to the mainstream. But she was one of the journalistic big beasts: a former editor of the London Evening Standard and the Sunday Telegraph. It is unlikely that anyone with a similar CV would want to take on the task now.

The fact that the BBC had to slash its news operations is bad enough. They reflect the corporation’s disastrous financial settlement with the government in 2015, and then some wayward planning in the news division about how budgets would cope. The current director of news, Fran Unsworth, a decent and personable manager, was left carrying the can. But what makes it worse is that a number of wrong choices seem to have been made in drawing up the cuts, and there is no confidence among the rank and file in Broadcasting House that they will be a solution to what the corporation, belatedly, acknowledges is an existential crisis.

The glory of BBC News over the years has been its programmes. From the original World At One launched by presenter William Hardcastle and editor Andrew Boyle, to the emergence of the Today programme as the national agenda-setter, and to Newsnight, Panorama and the News at Ten: this has been where the BBC’s journalism has been developed and showcased. It has been those programme teams – producers, reporters, researchers – who have developed the ideas and given the output its richness and depth.

Audience numbers these days are under pressure, of course, but there is life in the traditional formats. Today hovers at around the seven million mark for listeners per week, and the 6pm TV news bulletin – with national and regional news – is sometimes the most-viewed part of the BBC One schedule. Editorially, it was the Newsnight team who pulled off the astonishing interview with Prince Andrew, and the programme was an indispensable part of last year’s Brexit coverage. Yet it is these programmes that are being targeted for the most painful cuts and it was confirmed that the award-winning Victoria Derbyshire show is being scrapped altogether.

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Editors’ roles will be eroded. There will be more central decision-making. The core BBC newsgathering operation will churn out more and more versions of a smaller number of stories and people who in the past would principally respond to the needs of the programmes will instead be calling the shots themselves. This has caused despair among producers. “The place is in free fall,” says one staff member, “I’m so angry.”

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At times, unquestionably, the autonomy of programmes has led to some duplication; but the benefits in terms of creativity and originality were real. Most importantly, the BBC was a large organisation with a number of distinctive voices – Rod Liddle once edited Today, magnificently – whereas now there is a high risk of a monolithic, bureaucratic culture. There is also little evidence of a push for more top decision-makers to be based outside London.

The justification is that digital use has rocketed and that the BBC will only reach younger audiences if the investment is transferred there. But BBC News is never going to be a strong brand for youth audiences in the way that BBC Three or Radio 1 are. Many insiders worry that money is being taken out of programmes that existing viewers and listeners love, and put into a digital bucket where competitors are producing the same sort of stuff – or better – and brand loyalty is thin. Put at its simplest: if you glimpse at the BBC headlines on your phone, does that make you want to pay the corporation £154.50 a year in the same way that a brilliant Panorama or an entertaining edition of the PM programme would? 

Nobody can pretend that the BBC’s job is easy. The government is breathing down its neck about the licence fee, and ministers are boycotting the Today programme. Audience loyalties generally are weaker and social media hostility is intense. But the corporation has not provided a convincing enough argument for taking a wrecking ball to the structure that delivered its greatest successes, and its proposed remedies may well turn the dark clouds into thunderstorms.