Inhabitants of “the Pit”, the large, underground newsroom at the BBC’s Broadcasting House, have learned to accept the imperfections of life at Britain’s public broadcaster.
Over the years they have endured several rounds of budget cuts, as well as departmental closures and mergers. Accusations of bias from politicians and rival media are frequent.
But in recent weeks the mood among the Pit’s digital journalists and 24-hour news and radio bulletin staff has turned from despondency to rage, much of it directed at the corporation’s chairman, Richard Sharp. “I would say the feeling in BBC News is defeated,” one long-serving journalist said this month. “Funereal is another adjective that comes to mind.”
Speaking to me on condition of anonymity, more than a dozen current and former staff painted a picture of a mutinous news organisation – particularly after Sharp’s appearance before the Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee on 7 February. There, the chairman defended his role in a controversial loan to Boris Johnson while he was prime minister, and aired his concerns about the BBC. The broadcaster had been “guilty”, Sharp said, of repeating “inaccurate information” about his involvement in Johnson’s £800,000 loan. “It’s made me aware of the consequences of inaccuracy in a very personal way,” Sharp told MPs. For BBC news journalists, Sharp’s attitude added insult to injury. “He’s simply confirmed how inappropriate he is as chairman,” one insider said. Another said: “The chairman is supposed to maintain the independence of the BBC, but has said publicly it has a liberal bias while facilitating loans to the PM and eating chop suey at Chequers.”
Since he was appointed in January 2021 Sharp has made it his mission to crack down on the BBC’s perceived lack of impartiality. In his first year, alongside the BBC director-general, Tim Davie, he launched a ten-point plan for tackling bias, which included enhanced impartiality training and “thematic reviews” of different areas of coverage. The first review, published this month, focused on financial reporting and found that too many BBC journalists “lack understanding of basic economics”. The second will examine the BBC’s reporting on migration.
But the pace of change has not been fast enough for Sharp, who held forth in an interview with the Sunday Times last December. The retired investment banker, who has donated more than £400,000 to the Conservative Party, bemoaned the BBC’s “groupthink” and suggested that Brexit had taken it by surprise, because it “didn’t understand the ‘mind’ of the country”. A few weeks later, the same newspaper published its allegations that, a couple of months before he was appointed BBC chairman, Sharp had helped to facilitate a loan to Johnson. The loan was guaranteed by a distant cousin of Johnson, Sam Blyth, whom Sharp had introduced to the cabinet secretary, Simon Case – a potential conflict of interest that had not been declared during the appointment process.
It is not unusual for the chairmanship of the BBC board, or the BBC Trust that preceded it, to go to a person with connections to the ruling party. Sharp’s predecessors include Rona Fairhead, now a Tory peer; Chris Patten, a former Tory party chairman; and Michael Lyons, once a Labour council chief executive, who was chairman at the end of the last Labour government. But several BBC journalists I spoke to felt that the appointment of Sharp (who also worked with Rishi Sunak at Goldman Sachs) was a step too far. “For all the talk of impartiality, staff feel the government has simply put their mates and donors in charge,” one BBC newsroom source said. “People are really pissed off,” said another. “We have to adhere to such strict impartiality rules, and then you’re seeing someone who’s sleepwalked into a role at the top.”
Some journalists were particularly enraged to have learned that Sharp had been on the panel that appointed Deborah Turness, formerly of ITN, as the chief executive of BBC News. One told me that Sharp had “overstepped an absolute red line into editorial matters” by involving himself. At his select committee hearing Sharp argued that it was appropriate for him to be involved in Turness’s recruitment because she would join the BBC board as part of her job. When approached for comment, the BBC said that Sharp had only been involved in interviewing Turness for the board role.
Sharp, 67, showed a willingness to be combative from the outset of his four-year term. In February 2021 he hosted an all-hands meeting alongside Davie, where one observer recalled him confronting the director-general with the damning findings of a recent internal survey. “He waved it in his face, and challenged him: ‘What are we going to do about this?’ “
The survey had included findings that just 56 per cent of employees across the BBC saw themselves “still working at the BBC in two years’ time”, and that only 44 per cent had “confidence in the executive team and their vision”. It was this very low morale that Sharp wanted to address. In the most recent follow-up survey, presented to staff in October 2022 and seen by the New Statesman, confidence in management had edged up to 45 per cent, while the percentage of staff who said they’d still be around in two years had fallen to 53 per cent. Perhaps more worryingly, only 40 per cent said they felt “excited about the BBC’s future”, and 36 per cent thought they were fairly paid. The broadcaster still appeared to inspire loyalty, even if its senior leaders did not: 84 per cent said they were proud to work for the BBC, and 94 per cent said they understood the importance of impartiality.
The recent departures from the BBC of well-known presenters such as Andrew Marr (now the New Statesman‘s political editor), Andrew Neil, Emily Maitlis and Vanessa Feltz have been widely reported. Less well-covered, but just as significant, has been the exodus of experienced hands and talented young journalists. These include the producer Dino Sofos, who launched the BBC’s Brexitcast and Americast podcasts, and who now heads up Persephonica, which produces The News Agents for Global, the radio and podcasts company; the ex-Newsbeat editor Debbie Ramsey, now a commissioning editor at Channel 4; Esme Wren, who quit as Newsnight editor to become editor of Channel 4 News; and Sophia Smith Galer, one of the UK’s first journalists to harness the powers of TikTok, now a senior reporter at Vice. Kamal Ahmed, who was made redundant as editorial director of the BBC in 2021, has co-founded the News Movement, a Gen Z-focused news brand. This is now staffed by Jonathan Paterson, BBC News’s former head of video, and several junior ex-BBC reporters who excel in the kind of short-form video journalism that flourishes on TikTok.
“Something went seriously awry in 2021-22,” one former BBC manager said. “A series of short-term decisions forced an exodus of talented mid-career journalists – people who thought, talked and acted differently, people who were aware that audience habits were changing, and felt passionately that the BBC needed to do something about it. The sad thing is that this group have gone on to do a host of interesting and innovative things that are not that far removed from what they were doing [at the BBC].” One insider suggested the BBC had been slow to pick up on the significance of TikTok, preferring staff to attract news consumers directly to the BBC’s platforms. Turness, who started as chief executive in September 2022, has reversed this and started to invest in TikTok growth (the BBC News TikTok account surpassed one million followers this week). They have some catching up to do: Sky News and ITV News have 3.6 million and 1.6 million followers respectively.
Turnover has reached breakneck speed in some areas of the newsroom. “Every week there is someone handing in their resignation,” one Pit journalist told me. Another said: “Almost everyone has left. If you recognise one face in the Pit, it’s a good day. There are a few staff remaining who are cruising to retirement or redundancy. Occasionally a new person appears for a while on a fixed-term contract or freelancing, but only long enough to make it look good on a CV. No one sees it as a long-term job: sitting in the Pit and cutting and pasting from agencies. Hardly anyone leaves the building or does any actual journalism.”
None of the BBC journalists I spoke to complained about their pay, although some thought they would earn more in the private sector. While the BBC’s most successful broadcasters can command a six-figure salary, many rank-and-file journalists work unsociable shift patterns, and rarely leave the Pit or other newsrooms. One former editor told me that a low-level BBC journalist would typically earn between £27,000 and £32,000 a year, at least before any recent inflation-linked pay rises. If they remained in post for ten years, this might rise to about £37,000. A senior broadcast journalist, they said, could start on £35,000 to £40,000 and eventually earn up to around £50,000. Assistant editors could be on £39,000 to £55,000, while more senior newsroom staff would probably be on £75,000 to £110,000. For working three or four days a week, Sharp is paid £160,000, which he donates to charity.
Heads had been turned, though, by the BBC’s generous redundancy packages. Staff can expect to receive one month’s pay for each year of service, up to a maximum of 24 months for staff who joined the corporation before January 2013, when the policy was changed to 12 months. (There is a cap of £150,000.) “Getting redundancy is like finding a Willy Wonka golden ticket,” said one long-serving journalist.
Redundancy opportunities have not been hard to come by. In 2020 the BBC announced it would axe 520 roles from its news division of around 6,000, to help find savings of £80m. A further 70 jobs, including several presenter roles, are now disappearing as part of a controversial merger between the 24-hour BBC News and World News channels. Outside London, 48 jobs are to be lost across BBC England as the corporation cuts down on local radio output.
Job cuts are always painful but the recent BBC culls appear to have been particularly badly handled. Two Pit journalists I spoke to were unhappy with the 2020 process, which they said was poorly explained and had led to staff being unnecessarily moved between departments.
The merger of the news channels has caused the most upset, as more than a dozen established presenters have vied for five jobs. “The mood among the two teams is on the floor,” said one BBC insider. “People who’ve worked there for decades have never known it to feel bleaker.” The interview process included screen tests in which presenters were filmed in a clip studio, likened by one source to a “broom cupboard”, and tested on their ability to deal with breaking news while operating an autocue with a foot pedal. One source described it as a “sham” and “unrealistic”, as well as a strange way to judge people who have been presenting live news for years. Another said that staff on the BBC News channel felt “devastated and gaslit” after most of the presenter roles went to World News journalists. What was presented as a merger felt more like a closure of the domestic channel. The same source suggested the target audience of the newly combined news channel would be wealthy people living outside the UK. “Where does this leave the UK audience who want to have the tax affairs of Nadhim Zahawi and the interference of Richard Sharp properly interrogated?” they said. “The UK taxpayer is being f***ed over, frankly.”
Clearly Sharp is not solely to blame for the low levels of morale. The BBC’s cost-cutting regime, prompted by a government freeze on funding from the licence fee, had begun before he joined. And he was right to focus on impartiality as an area of concern: a survey published in the BBC’s 2022 annual report found that 25 per cent of the British public thought the BBC was ineffective “at providing news and current affairs that is impartial”.
Yet the recent revelations about Sharp have angered staff because they further undermine the perception of the BBC as an impartial source. There were also concerns about other members of the BBC board, notably Robbie Gibb, the former director of communications for Theresa May, who, sources said, sometimes “saw it as helpful to be passing on how news coverage was landing with Downing Street”. (Last month the New Statesman reported how Gibb lectured Newsnight staff about the team’s perceived left-wing bias.)
Still, the potential for Conservative Party influence was overstated, two former senior BBC leaders said. Editors are used to standing up for themselves, and board members can usually only express a view after a programme has been broadcast. Both expressed other concerns about the current make-up of the BBC’s board and leadership team. They fear that the BBC is being led by a chairman, a director-general and some non-executive directors, such as Damon Buffini, a private equity entrepreneur, who are experienced in business but who do not appreciate the corporation’s role as a public service. One current senior news journalist said: “There is a new wind blowing through the BBC. It’s commercial, and it does not embody the values of the BBC.”
Similar concerns were recently articulated by Helen Boaden, the BBC’s former director of radio. Interviewing Rhodri Talfan Davies, the BBC’s director of nations, at a conference last November, Boaden expressed reservations about what she saw as an increased focus on commercial revenue at the BBC. “Because of your financial problems, my sense is that the board in particular is mesmerised by the potential of commercialisation,” she said. “Certainly, if you talk to staff, they feel very strongly that the director-general and the chairman bang on about commercialisation.”
Meanwhile, the BBC’s commercial rivals sense an opportunity. Global, the owner of LBC, has poached several big names and its influence is growing. News Corp’s TalkRadio and Times Radio remain small but were the fastest-growing news stations measured by Rajar, the official audience research body, in the last quarter of 2022. Gill Hind, director of television at Enders Analysis, a media industry analyst, said: “On the radio side, there is greater competition and that’s because you’ve got commercial players who are quite well-funded. But also, DAB and the internet and smart speakers have taken away the advantage the BBC always had – where it had the best frequencies nationally.”
In the last quarter of 2022 BBC radio stations had a weekly reach of 33.2 million listeners, a decline of 1.3 million (or 3.7 per cent) on the previous year, according to figures from Rajar. Over the same period commercial radio stations’ reach grew 1.3 million (or 3.6 per cent) to 38.1 million. Radio 4’s flagship news programme, Today, lost nearly 300,000 listeners over this period, recording a weekly reach of 6.2 million in late 2022.
One BBC television news insider said: “We are handing the audience to our competitors on a plate. You only have to look at the viewing figures for late evening now that we’ve got rid of the newspaper review – they have collapsed.” Sky News has had a ratings boost for its rival paper review on weekday nights. GB News, the upstart right-wing news channel, is also making gains. Figures from Barb, which measures TV audiences, shared with the New Statesman show that the average prime-time audience gap between the BBC News channel and GB News was more than 100,000 in January 2022. Last month that gap had narrowed to 40,000. News Corp’s TalkTV, meanwhile, has landed headline-generating interviews with Cristiano Ronaldo, Rishi Sunak and Boris Johnson.
A BBC spokesperson told the New Statesman that the corporation “continues to be rated the most trusted, impartial and accurate news source in the country”. They cited Ipsos research showing that eight out of ten UK adults access the BBC each week, a far higher percentage than its competitors; worldwide, they claimed an audience of nearly half a billion people. While job cuts had “not been easy”, they had been essential, the spokesperson said. “Audience needs are changing, with more people accessing news digitally, and the BBC faces a challenging financial situation.” They pointed to recent reporting of the earthquakes in Turkey and Syria, the war in Ukraine and the coverage of the death of Queen Elizabeth as evidence of the “talent and journalistic skill” in BBC news.
In his select committee hearing, Sharp denied having given Johnson any financial advice, saying he knew “nothing about his personal financial affairs”. He said he had introduced Blyth to Case only to ensure due process was followed, and had not disclosed this in a hearing with the committee before his appointment as BBC chairman because he had already raised the matter with Case. He admitted that, “with the benefit of hindsight”, he might have done, but felt he had been appointed on his merits. Sharp declined to comment further when contacted by the New Statesman.
Some MPs on the committee were incredulous after Sharp spoke of having previously failed in an application to join the BBC board in a lesser role. “What,” asked the SNP MP John Nicolson, “do you think the difference was, between your failed application then and your application now, following the huge facility that you helped the prime minister with?” Sharp denied that he had been involved in providing a “huge facility”.
Sharp did acknowledge that the revelations had created a “distraction”, and that he was “disturbed by the fact that all the tremendous things that the BBC is doing should in any way be overshadowed by this”. He said he had received “messages of support” from people within the BBC, and added that his “door is open” to anyone unhappy at the corporation.
This came as news to the staffers back in the Pit, smarting from his repeated claim that the BBC fell short on accuracy and impartiality. “When he said he’d had a lot of messages – I don’t know a single person who thinks he’s in the right,” one current journalist said. They anticipated further cuts, and if morale had been low, it was now even lower. This week might ordinarily have been a time for celebration among BBC News staff, who received 26 nominations at the RTS Television Journalism Awards, far more than any rival. Instead, those I spoke to were anxious about the prospect of further cuts, and “fuming” about the actions of their chairman. “If Richard Sharp can’t understand what he’s done wrong,” one said, “he’s even more of a problem to us than he realises.”
[See also: Richard Sharp reveals how dinner parties rule British politics]
This article appears in the 15 Feb 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Why the right is losing everywhere