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12 January 2018

The BBC’s latest head of news has inherited a tough series of defining decisions

The wider battle facing the newly appointed director, Fran Unsworth, is simply to make the case for BBC News.

By Roger Mosey

The appointment of Fran Unsworth as director of news has gone down well at the BBC. She’s a corporation lifer, noted for calm, practical management with a decent human touch – which, as this week’s re-eruption of the equal pay row indicates, she will need. “A huge relief” is how one presenter characterised the reaction to her arrival, and on social media some BBC folk went further. “They have learned from the mistake of appointing a print journalist to run a broadcaster,” said one.

The outgoing director, James Harding, was a former editor of the Times. Nobody doubted his journalistic nous nor his energy. He also managed to get through his tenure without any hurricane-force storms, which is an achievement denied to most BBC News managers, including me. But many of Harding’s troops were never convinced that he understood public service broadcasting: rather than insulate himself by promoting BBC types, he doubled down by bringing in outsiders to key roles. 

Two of the flagships – Newsnight and Today – were put into the hands of newspaper executives also without broadcasting experience, with what can kindly be called mixed results. A distinguished former editor is gloomy about the standards of much of the output: “News judgements (running orders etc) are no longer reliable; basics like ‘why?’ repeatedly go unexamined; writing is often cliché-ridden; and interview production is at an all-time low.” A more sympathetic observer says Harding faced a division with murky editorial and funding mechanisms in which “he never really knew where the bodies were buried”.

There was an uncertain approach to programming initiatives. In 2016, Emily Maitlis was given a show about international news called This Week’s World, hailed by the BBC press office as “a major new Saturday current affairs programme for BBC Two”, which seems to have disappeared already. The same goes for No Such Thing as the News, a satire show that Harding claimed would be news for people who don’t watch news. It wasn’t. More successful was BBC Two’s daytime Victoria Derbyshire show, which has broken stories and won awards. But insiders mutter about the amount of resources it consumes given the size of its audience, and it too has a cloudy future.

This points to the unfinished business of the Harding era: the cuts which the corporate centre is seeking from news. “The chickens are coming home to roost,” according to one senior manager. The official figure is £80m over the next three years; and candidates for the top job were interviewed on the basis that up to £50m of savings could be needed in the next financial year. The BBC’s media editor Amol Rajan published a blog on Unsworth’s appointment describing her new role as “hellish”, and he relayed a conversation with one of the candidates about whether the cuts could be achieved by salami-slicing existing output or making major sacrifices such as the BBC News Channel. “The trouble is,” his source concluded, “that even after you do both – ie cut lots of big stuff and salami-slice – you still get nowhere near £80m.”

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In the way of W1A politics, it is unlikely that the £80m target will remain. One insider predicts “£40-60m, but still massive” – especially with more money needed to sort out pay equality. Other corporate manoeuvres haven’t helped: a planned £10m cut in local radio was rescinded, which offers the questionable benefit of stations being able to restore their own programming in low-audience evening slots. But this is while some network output at unsocial times such as breakfast and weekends is thinly staffed; and the BBC accountants are demanding divisional “efficiencies” that could mean the end of the News Channel and Newsnight. Both have been eyed for closure in recent years, and yet in this extraordinary period of international turmoil and political upheaval it would seem bizarre for the BBC to abandon a 24-hour television news service or a nightly current affairs show. Unsworth will want to retain them, particularly when there’s uncertainty about the future of Sky News following the Disney deal with Rupert Murdoch.

The wider battle she faces is simply to make the case for BBC News. The corporation’s reputation in the years ahead will overwhelmingly be defined by two things. First, what it puts into peak TV schedules and on iPlayer in the age of Netflix – especially in drama where competition is intense and British production still matters. And second, the quality of news operations on TV, radio and online where there is a crying need for sane, impartial reporting and analysis that serves people across the UK and globally. The BBC has a choice about how much it sticks by other missions, such as the fool’s errand of trying to impress the British arts establishment with its range of programming; or the creation of a BBC Music brand; or the ideas service which has been long in gestation but remains mysterious even to many insiders.

There are murmurings that the BBC’s financial position may not be as grim as first thought. Logging in to use BBC iPlayer has pushed up the number of licence payers, and linking the fee to inflation has helped, too. Foreign Office money is supporting new language services, and there are hopes that some over-75s will want to continue paying for BBC content even though they can have it for free. But it is inevitable that defining decisions have to be made in the coming months – which, if they go the wrong way, will leave BBC News viewers and listeners much the poorer. It’s hard to imagine that this is what the director-general Tony Hall, a former occupant of the news job himself, would want. 

Roger Mosey is the Master of Selwyn College, Cambridge, and a former head of BBC Television news

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This article appears in the 10 Jan 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Toddler in chief