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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.

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.”

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

Roger Mosey is the Master of Selwyn College, Cambridge. He was formerly editorial director and the director of London 2012 at the BBC.

This article first appeared in the 10 January 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Toddler in chief

Photo: Getty
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Technology can change the world – provided we have a measure of democracy, too

You could say we need a technological revolution for the many, not the few. 

Over the last five decades, the American Consumer Technology Association’s annual jamboree has grown to become the world’s largest tech show: attracting over 190,000 visitors and 4000 companies, with 7,460 reporters filing 59,969 reports over the course of four days in Las Vegas. In the process, it has achieved an almost mythical status – from unveiling the first-ever home VCR (Philips 1970) to Bill Gates’ resignation from Microsoft in 2006, and has included cameo appearances by the likes of Jay-Z and Barack Obama.

As a fully qualified geek (Electrical Engineering degree, 20 years in tech – before it was cool) and the shadow minister for Industrial Strategy Science and Innovation, I couldn’t resist seizing the opportunity to venture to Las Vegas while on a family holiday to the US’ west coast; hoping, against all hope, to see the progressive future of a technology-enabled, more equal world.

If only.

But I did emerge with a renewed conviction that technology can solve our problems – if we use it to do so.

In some ways, the most remarkable thing about the International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) was the way it demonstrated how technology has taken over our entire world. CES was a car show in the middle of a health show, which happened to be around the corner from a home show, which was adjacent to a sports show that was next to an entertainment show. Just about every sector was represented.

Nissan had a huge stand for their new autonomous vehicle showcasing the ‘Brain-Vehicle Interface’, as did Philips for their new sleep enhancing devices, and Huawei for their connected home. In 2018, technology can be used as an enabling platform to aid just about everything. And in a world where near enough everything is politicised, technology is very political.

But this was not evident from CES: not from the stands, neither the keynotes, nor the participants. There were few speakers from civic society nor governments, and those politicians who attended – such as Donald Trump’s Transportation Secretary, Elaine Chao – talked only of their ‘excitement’ at the sunlit uplands technology could guide us to. The show existed in its own, largely self-sufficient world. While Ford created an entire street to show off its autonomous cars, there was no reference to who would pay for the road, pavements, lamp-posts and guttering if only robots worked.

And as a politician rather than an engineer, it is the societal impact that matters most to me. One realisation brought about by my visit is that I have greatly under-estimated the consequences of driverless vehicles: communications, parking, urban layout, and public transport are all likely to be deeply impacted. The automobile industry is working to position cars as your personal moving office-cum-front room-cum-hotel-cum-lecture theatre; where you can work, maintain personal and social relationships, unwind and learn – all while going from A to B. How will crowded, under-funded public transport compete?

At the show, Nissan launched its Brain-to-Vehicle technology, which reads the driver’s brainwaves to determine when the car’s intelligence should intervene. Although I'm personally unsure about the inclusion of brain surveillance in the driving experience, it may well be the next logical step as we increasingly give up our data in return for ‘free’ services. Certainly the anthropologists at Nissan argued that this was the very definition of assisted artificial intelligence.

Fortunately, autonomous vehicles are not the only way to get around. Improvements in battery technology mean that – between electric scooters capable of folding away into airplane carry on, and electric bikes with the power of motorcycles – personal mobility has become a market in its own right.

Personal health and sport were also big themes at the event. Philips has brought back the night cap, which not only looks far more fetching than the Victorian original, but is now also capable of lulling you gently into a slumber before monitoring the quality of your sleep. Orcam’s discrete camera-glasses for the visually impaired can read text and recognise people, whilst L’Oréal’s UV Sense is a sensor small enough to be worn comfortably on your fingernail that detects ultraviolet exposure.

One aspect of the show that has remained largely unchanged is its demographics. Whilst the glossy adverts on the walls depict women and BME people using technology, those actually designing it were, with a few exceptions, male and largely white. As always, there were no queues for the women’s loos and while there were not any ‘F1 girls’, the gender balance was improved largely by attractive women, who were not engineers, being employed to ‘explain’ technological advances.

Weeks later, the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos was also dominated by technology, which the Prime Minister used as a fig leaf to cover the absence of vision for Brexit. Lacking in both the CES and Davos, was any sense that the interests of the many had any significant stake in what was going on. We need a Labour government to help change that.

Chi Onwurah is the Labour MP for Newcastle upon Tyne Central, and the shadow minister for industrial strategy.