The BBC is heading for a series of potentially damaging strikes following the approval of plans to axe thousands of jobs – the majority of them in core news and current affairs departments.
The BBC also plans more repeats.
And the statements about staff taking the pain now to protect the future of the corporation sound exactly like an unwelcome repeat of Mark Thompson’s comments when the BBC announced 3,780 job cuts in 2005. That was supposed to protect the future. It didn’t – and today’s strategy is equally as flawed.
These are not cuts which fall on so-called backroom functions or non-frontline staff but cuts which strike a blow at the very part of the BBC most valued by licence fee payers – its local, national and international news and current affairs services.
If the BBC Trust talk about “safeguarding investment in areas in which the BBC’s reputation as an outstanding public service broadcaster rests” – why are they cutting up to 20% of staff in those very areas and significantly more in radio news? Their strategy simply doesn’t make sense.
We can all find things wrong with the BBC. We’d all welcome more of the stuff we like and less of the stuff we don’t. But every survey shows most people think they get a good deal from the BBC – distinctive, quality news and current affairs across a variety of media for a variety of audiences.
But all that is under threat as a result of the plans unveiled today. Hundreds of jobs in news and hundreds in factual programming are to go. An under-resourced integrated newsroom will provide content for a variety of BBC outlets.
We are told the cuts will not undermine quality. I’d love to be reassured by the Director General’s fine words but my experience tells me I shouldn’t be.
Take the Today programme. Where once it had 17 reporters it now has less than half that number – is there only half the news there used to be? Of course not, it is forced now to restrict its newsgathering to fit its staffing. The same is true of many other parts of the BBC.
That means compromises – and it means undermining quality. But not everyone agrees.
A senior source inside the BBC, quoted in today’s Daily Telegraph, accuses the NUJ of being a left wing protectionist union. Of course we’ll fight to protect the jobs and health and welfare of our members but we’re about more than that in this battle. We’re about defending quality journalism and quality programme-making from light to sound, to newsgathering, to presentation to graphics and beyond – across all platforms.
Our fear is for the long term. A BBC that further undermines quality will increasingly lose its legitimacy in arguing for a fair licence fee settlement in the future – some may say for any licence fee. Without that unique and privileged funding position the BBC will be forced to act like other commercial media – operating at the mercy of the advertising market or shareholder demands.
We’ve seen what that has meant for ITV – the closure of its local news services and the halving of its budgets for regional news. The BBC say what they are doing is simply swimming with the tide in other parts of the industry. It’s a lame excuse. Other parts of the industry, driven by shareholder demands and corporate greed are cutting jobs and undermining quality too. The BBC should swim against that tide.
Jeremy Dear is general secretary of the National Union of Journalists