Once again, BBC News is making the news. Its presenters are departing: Emily Maitlis and Jon Sopel are off to the Global media company, following Andrew Marr out the door. The recent selection of stories has been controversial: was it right for the flagship BBC Ten O’Clock News to put Boris Johnson’s announcement on coronavirus ahead of a looming war in Ukraine? Or to give so much airtime to Novak Djokovic’s vaccination suspicions?
So far, so normal. The BBC is always a soap opera with plotlines about who’s in and who’s out, amid a level of scrutiny over its coverage that far exceeds other media organisations. In these times of conflict, especially, its core public service is valued; and the corporate press office was correct to respond to some recent flurries by saying, primly, “we don’t feel that highlighting a few unrelated pieces of output from across the BBC says anything meaningful about a 24-hour worldwide news operation.” But there is a fair amount going on below the surface, and the same underlying issues remain: how can BBC News retain its lustre in the face of intense competition and draconian cost-cutting by the corporation’s managers?
The reasons for the departure of Maitlis and Sopel seem to be partly about a genuine opportunity to take their podcasts into a new commercial market – but there must be a personal dimension too. Maitlis’s colleagues speak of her frustration with the BBC’s impartiality guidelines, which began with her being told off about her Dominic Cummings monologue on Newsnight in 2020, and then continued with reprimands about some unwise retweeting of partisan views. Now she can join other former colleagues in saying what she likes. “I feel ten years younger than I did six months ago,” Andrew Marr told me in a recent webinar, saying he found it “oppressive to self-censor in a nuanced but perpetual way”, as the guidelines had required. As for Sopel, I am guessing that if he had been assured that he would replace Laura Kuenssberg as the BBC’s next political editor, he would have stayed put; we now know that someone else will take that role. “They want to make a statement with a big appointment,” said one insider.
Presenters come and go, but the most worrying thing for supporters of the BBC is the sheer number of people – producers, reporters and support staff – who have left in recent months. It’s a consequence of the corporate centre’s demand for £80m in savings, resulting in hundreds of job losses. The loss of experience cannot be a good thing – and neither can thinly stretched staffing rotas. Worse, the pressure will continue. The government’s freeze on the BBC licence fee has not yet translated into further cuts to budgets, but BBC News has few friends in the big television output departments that want to maintain the spend on drama and entertainment. Happily, the departure of Maitlis prompted the BBC to confirm its long-term support for Newsnight – which staff had believed was one of the programmes under threat – but there is scant hope of fresh investment in journalism.
This is a mistake, because quality news reporting remains one of the most distinctive characteristics of the BBC, especially in a troubled world. Not only does it help define public service, but it brings audiences too. On 22 February, the drama programme broadcast on BBC One up to 10pm finished with an audience of under one million – it was the news that brought more than three million people back to the channel. But it is true that the bulletin has at times struggled editorially. We have all got the wrong lead story in our time, but the choice on 21 February of Johnson relaxing Covid rules over the breaking news of Putin and Ukraine was puzzling. “I think the BBC has lost the plot. All credibility gone for me,” said one former director who had been shouting at the television. Unquestionably, that night ITV and Sky News did much better: ITV’s coverage of the unfolding crisis in Ukraine was sure-footed and ranged widely, while Sky was presenting live from Kyiv.
Does one individual programme matter? It does if it’s part of a pattern and the BBC, aspiring to be the best news organisation in the world, trails behind its rivals too often. ITV is dominating the awards season thanks to its astonishingly vivid coverage of the 6 January attacks on the Capitol in Washington, DC. At the 2022 RTS Journalism Awards on 23 February, ITV won nine awards in total – including News Programme of the Year for its News at Ten. The BBC won only three.
The one piece of possible cheer for BBC News is that its next boss will be the person currently running ITN, who presumably deserves some of the credit for its Ukraine coverage. If Deborah Turness can get her leadership right, there remain within the BBC enough hard-working, talented journalists who are determined to maintain the reputation of the news division, despite the cuts and reorganisations and the risk of being arbitrarily dispatched to Leeds or Glasgow as part of the corporate regional strategy. But being director of news is one heck of a tough job. BBC bosses disliked it when I called the role “impossible” in a previous New Statesman piece, so let’s agree that “very tough” is the kindest description of the path ahead for BBC News.