By guest blogger Benjamin Shingler
BBC News managed to avoid a labour strike last month after agreeing to hold off on plans to lay off more than 400 employees, but there are still more programming cuts and job losses looming on the horizon.
The world’s oldest and largest public broadcaster, with a staff of about 8,400, including 5,000 journalists, in London, across the United Kingdom, and overseas, must find a way to find a way to slash roughly a quarter of its budget by 2016.
And like the CBC, it’s trying to carve out a place for itself in the new, global media landscape while dealing with a less-than-sympathetic government at home.
James Harding, the BBC’s director of news and current affairs, called this year’s budget cuts “an extremely difficult undertaking.”
“Taking nearly £50 million ($91 million CAD) out of a well-run organization that provides high quality news services that are trusted, relied upon and used by millions of people is an extremely difficult undertaking.”
James Harding, BBC’s director of news and current affairs
“Taking nearly £50 million ($91 million CAD) out of a well-run organization that provides high quality news services that are trusted, relied upon and used by millions of people is an extremely difficult undertaking,” Harding said in a statement.
“The challenge is how to make BBC News even better, despite having less money.”
Opinion varies widely on the changes required.
Charlie Beckett, a longtime BBC journalist and now a professor at the London School of Economics, said the broadcaster was a “radical innovation” when it was created in 1922 and now, “it needs to rediscover its ambition and relevance.”
“In the context of developments in the wider media and other changes in the lives of citizens and communities it must adapt in significant ways,” Beckett said in a recent report submitted to a parliamentary committee.
“The BBC needs to concentrate on the added value of more intelligent, innovative, challenging content.”
But the biggest question is how it should be financed.
The broadcaster, with a wide presence on TV, radio and online, had an operating expenditure of £4.9 billion ($8.81 billion CAD) in 2012-13.
As it stands, British families must pay an annual £145.50 TV licence fee ($264 CAD) to fund the BBC. That amount has been frozen since 2010.
In July, BBC announced details of a plan to cut £48 million ($86 million CAD) a year in cuts a year over the next three and a commitment to “invest in digital transformation and original journalism.”
The proposed savings were spread across BBC News Group, which includes network news, current affairs, regional networks, the World Service and the commercial BBC World News channel.
As part of the restructuring, the BBC wanted to cut 415 jobs while at the same time creating 195 new posts, for which the laid-off workers wouldn’t be eligible.
Labour unions at the BBC balked and voted in favour of strike action.
The workers backed down in September only after the BBC agreed to put a moratorium on job cuts, not excluding voluntary buyout packages, until the end of March 2015.
“The moratorium on compulsory redundancies will give us the breathing space to work through these proposals in detail,” Luke Crawley, assistant general secretary for Bectu, a labour union representing more than half the workers at the BBC, said after the deal was reached.
“The fact that BBC News is prepared to give this commitment should mean we can begin to repair the damage to staff relations created by management’s earlier decision to sidestep established agreements.”
Things could be even more difficult in the years to come.
The BBC says it must still cut an anticipated 620 jobs by 2016. That same year, the BBC’s charter agreement, which lays out its budget and mandate as a broadcaster, is up for new renewal in British parliament.
Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservative government has floated the idea of reducing the fee when it comes up for renewal in two years. And the culture secretary, Sajid Javid, recently launched a review into whether paying the licence fee should be a criminal offence. Removing that provision would make it more difficult to ensure payment is made on an annual basis.
In an interview, Crawley said there’s a general impression amongst Conservatives that the BBC is against the Conservatives, pro-Europe, and “staffed by people who are left wing.”
“If the Conservatives were to win the next election, I believe they would have a frozen licence fee going forward,” he said by phone.
Bectu has been trying to persuade political parties to increase the annual licence fee at the rate of inflation, he said. But the ruling Conservatives haven’t shown any interest in that idea, and the British Labour party hasn’t committed to a position on the BBC.
“We’re very concerned about that,” he said.
Sue Harris, an organizer with the National Union of Journalists, another key BBC union, said the NUJ will be pressing the broadcaster to put its money toward staffing and programming rather than management.
The BBC’s output has constantly changed over the many years it has been broadcasting and will continue to do so as new technology is developed and comes into play,” she said in an email. “Whatever the technological developments, there is no reason that these underpinning principles should change.”
Sue Harris, Organizer, National Union of Journalists (NUJ)
“The BBC’s output has constantly changed over the many years it has been broadcasting and will continue to do so as new technology is developed and comes into play,” she said in an email.
“Whatever the technological developments, there is no reason that these underpinning principles should change.”
Harding, the BBC director, said digital technology should be viewed as an opportunity.
“BBC News led the way first in radio, then in television and then online. Now, digital technologies offer us the opportunity to lead a fourth revolution in news,” he said.
“Investing in getting and telling stories – in original, distinctive journalism – is part of that. And reorienting ourselves to lead the world of news into a digital future is part of that too. But it’s only a part: the most important part, what will win it for us, is what we put on screen, on air and online – the news.”
Benjamin Shingler is a CMG member at CP