Is the BBC paying its journalists too much?

Quick post on this morning’s Telegraph story on journalists’ pay at the BBC.

It suggests that pay for rank and file broadcast journalists at the BBC is far out of whack with its commercial competitors.

With another round of cost cutting coming up, the message is clear: BBC hacks are growing fat on public sector money and need cutting down to size.

I don’t have the full report from PWC but I’d be interested in reading it. Not least because the methodology looks suspect.

Take a look at this graph:

bbcpay

It seems to show that BBC pay outstrips commercial sector pay at lower levels when compared to journalists at Sky News, ITV, ITN, Channel 4, the Guardian, Reuters, The Times and the Sun.

Leave aside the fact that comparing newspaper and broadcast salaries isn’t straight forward – they’re different jobs with different salary expectations and scales –  the graphic seems to show a rather odd result.

A broadcast journalist band 5-7 is a journalist working outside London, band 8-9 is one working in the capital. According to this, a BJ working in the commercial sector in London earns the equivalent average salary as their senior broadcast journalist colleagues across the whole country including London.

That seems unlikely and almost certainly reflects difficulties comparing different positions.

The other factor that’s not revealed by this graphic is the age and experience of the journalists being surveyed.

It is entirely possible to have a career at the BBC and never rise beyond BJ/SBJ level. That’s not my experience of the commercial broadcast sector with its leaner operations – there it’s move up or move out. I can remember looking around the ITN newsroom in my early 30s and thinking there was barely any production journalists above the age of 40 – including the senior editors. That doesn’t promote confidence in career longevity.

That said, it’s hard to see the BBC’s Unpredictability Allowance payments surviving unchanged. There aren’t many jobs in the media that pay you extra fixed sums for working unsociable hours – that looks like a hangover from a previous age.

 

Time for a rethink of BBC local radio

The BBC is again seeking to make cuts as it deals with the fallout from a tough licence fee agreement with the government.

BBC News is expected to find £80 million of savings – a big figure however you look at it.

After years of salami slicing – or Delivering Quality First as it was known – it looks likely that this time it will be a case of not doing something, rather than doing somethings in a cheaper way.

So given that, what is the point of BBC local radio?

Currently there are 39 BBC local radio stations in England costing some £153 million. But even among its target audience of over 50s listening is falling. Down to a reach of 23.9%.

It’s expensive too. At 3.8pence per listener hour it costs more than any other service with the exception of Radio 3.

Why do we need 39 local radio stations with broadly similar and expensive content, few listeners and not much sign of any improvement in the future?

Last time local radio was threatened with cuts it proved untouchable. A coalition of listeners, the BBC Trust, and MPs who like appearing on it, watered down proposals to reduce budgets.

But perhaps it’s time for a radical rethink. We have BBC Scotland and BBC Wales. What about BBC England?

Let’s have one station for England aimed at over 50s with strong regional newsgathering. It would be cheaper, more coherent and still feed material into national broadcast and digital news.

And who knows, people might even listen to it too.

BBC3 goes online only – sacrificing the young for the old

 

So farewell BBC3.

Unloved by the media, looked down upon by politicians; when the cuts came there was no one to save it from the axe.

Dumbed down, crass, perhaps even idiotic. The charges against it had some merit, after all who will miss Snog, Marry, Avoid?

Well, the target audience.

The channel had a loyal following among 16-34 year olds, in particular the lower end of that demographic.

In an era when young adults increasingly don’t watch linear television, 11.2 million people watched BBC3 each week. A million of them didn’t watch any other TV channel.

And it was more than just post-pub TV.

The channel had a fine record in modern sit-com and comedy drama. Little Britain, The Might Boosh, Gavin and Stacey and Being Human all started out there.

Although Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps perhaps shows that the commissioners didn’t always get it right.

But it was expensive.

Its budget was £86 million in 2014/15 and with the BBC under pressure to save money this was an easy saving to get past middle-aged regulators and the politicians who never watched it.

The BBC argues it’s following the audience online, that it will still spend £30 million on original content for digital delivery and that there will still be repeats on BBC1 and 2.

But when I told my media students it was going online only there were groans all around the room.

Maintaining a brand online is tricky; what will BBC3 mean to the next generation of viewers without a space on the broadcast spectrum?

The BBC needs to appeal to younger viewers and to encourage them to identify with its services and channels.

And the way to do that is not to cut BBC Young in favour of maintaining BBC Old.

 

This is a cross-post of a piece I wrote for the University of Northampton

 

 

BBC Young cut for BBC Old

 

I was on BBC Northampton this morning talking to Helen Blaby about the decision to take BBC3 online only.

I called it what it is: a budget saving decision dressed up as innovation.

You can listen here – starts at about 1h 10

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Resigning live on The Daily Politics – can you trust the BBC?

There is a growing row today over the BBC’s stage management of the resignation of the Shadow Foreign Affairs spokesman, Stephen Doughty.

Mr Doughty announced he was quitting on The Daily Politics show.

Good scoop for them, you might think.

But yesterday the programme’s output editor wrote a blog explaining how it came about – and specifically that the programme asked Political Editor, Laura Kuessenberg, whether Doughty could be persuaded to resign on-air.

doughty esingation

It appears that the programme team hadn’t quite realised how incendiary this would be. But someone else did and the blog was quietly taken down.

That was picked up the blogger Alex Little, who began to ask questions about the BBC’s role in the affair.

And then it all kicked off.

For the supporters of Jeremy Corbyn this was clear evidence of a BBC agenda of bias against the Labour leader. They took to Twitter en masse to fulminate about the coverage. Some even going so far as to suggest that the entire resignation was a stunt got up by the BBC.

That was too much even for the BBC’s press office.

Most journalists were incredulous at the naivety of Corbyn’s supporters.

Although there was some questioning about the BBC’s taking down of the blog. This from the LSE’s Charlie Beckett, who is also an advisor to the House of Commons’ Culture Media and Sport Select Committee.

The key questions are:

  • Did the BBC organise the resignation of Stephen Doughty?
    • No. It’s clear he had already decided to resign and written to Corbyn.
  • Was it right for the BBC to allow Stephen Doughty to resign on air?
    • This is an editorial decision. The programme makers want a scroop and they got it. Referring back to my battered copy of the BBC Editorial guidelines, the only issue I can see raised by this is the question of whether carrying the resignation is a breach of due impartiality. I can’t see that it is. Not least because of the rigour of Andrew Neil’s subsequent questioning of his motives in resignation. Consider this: would it have been OK for the BBC to carry an interview with a public figure in any other sphere in which they announced their resignation? Clearly the answer to this is yes. So, why wouldn’t they carry Doughty’s resignation interview?
  • Did the BBC stage manage the resignation for maximum impact?
    • Pretty clearly the answer to this is yes. But all news coverage is managed by journalists for the maximum impact. If you’re the editor of News at Ten, you want your lead story to be a scoop that wrong foots the opposition. That’s what journalism is. Could the story been reported in other ways? Clearly it could – Laura Kuessenberg could reported it on the News Channel or Radio 4’s Today or any of the other myriad of BBC outlets. Would that have made any difference to the impact? I don’t think so and I think that comments about the timing are broadly disingenuous – Doughty had decided to resign on that morning, whether it was at 9am or 11.50am the effect would have been the same. 
  • Is the BBC acting in a politicised way?
    • I don’t think so. I don’t see that any other news organisation would have run this differently. But the issue for the BBC here is not that it IS acting politically but that it might be SEEN to be acting politically. That, I suspect, is the reason for the caution over the blog. As the BBC enters licence renewal it will want Labour onside and thus crowing articles about taking scalps are the last thing it wants to talk about in public.
  • Does the BBC have to be held to higher standards than other media organisations?
    • All this all very well then. But doesn’t the BBC have to be held to higher standards than other news organisations because of the unique nature of the way it’s funded? That’s certainly been the argument of the author and media commentator Peter Jukes.

     Does the BBC act like any other news organisation? I don’t think so. It holds itself to high editorial standards, it pays at least lip service to transparency, and it agonises over its coverage. Was it right to carry Doughty’s resignation announcement as it did – broadly I think so. The programme was a specialist programme for a specialist audience, there was a public interest in questioning his motives in resignation, and it was clearly newsworthy. But as so often with these cases, that’s a matter of opinion and judgement.

Which brings us all back to the age old question: can you trust the media? Trust them to always be impartial and to act from the purest and noblest of motives? To paraphrase my old colleague, Adrian Monck, who once wrote a book on this…. no.

 

Who will be the new Political Editors of BBC and ITV News?

westminster

They’re changing the guard at the Palace of Westminster.

After 10 years as political editors of BBC News and ITV News respectively both Nick Robinson and Tom Bradby are off to become presenters. Nick on Radio 4’s Today programme, Tom on ITV’s News at Ten.

The political editor of a TV (and these days digital) news service is a unique position in the broadcast firmament. Reporter, pundit, political anorak, celebrity, workaholic,  and conduit between government and company – the roles it encompasses are varied and subtle. It requires a sophisticated skill set to do the job well.

So, who’s in the running for two of the top jobs in British news?

As I’ve argued before these roles have for too long been awarded to middle-aged, white men. And the two deputies, James Landale and Chris Ship,at BBC and ITV respectively, fit that demographic. Both are competent and well respected, either would be a safe pair of hands.

But the deputy never gets the top job.

If you’re James Harding or Geoff Hill you want your appointment to make waves, garner headlines, perhaps bring in fresh blood and say something about your positioning of your news brand.

And I’d say that also rules out Sky News’s Joey Jones.

I’d say the most eligible candidates are all women. For either channel the interview short-list could look something like this:

Newsnight’s Laura Kuenssberg, Emily Maitlis and Allegra Stratton – all rising stars with serious clout, they may well want to take on the challenge while leaving Newsnight to head towards oblivion.

The BBC’s Lucy Manning – a well respected political journalist at ITV and Channel 4 before heading to the BBC, she’s got the Westminster chops. Crucially she’s also close to Head of Newsgathering, Jonathan Munro.

Channel 4’s Cathy Newman – a previous life with the FT and as a political correspondent means she’s got the experience. But with Jon Snow rapidly approaching 70 perhaps she might feel her name is firmly in the running to be lead presenter at Channel 4.

And as an outside bet, especially for ITV News, I’d look at the former political editor of The Observer, Gabby Hinsliff.

One final thought: Evan Davis has never really appeared comfortable at Newsnight. Could this be a way back into the mainstream of news?

The end of the road for the BBC Trust

I was at the IPPR’s Oxford Media Convention today to listen to Rona Fairhead talk about what might replace the BBC Trust.

Despite saying she didn’t want her time as BBC Trust chair to be overshadowed by discussions about governance, she’s ensured that will have to be part of the conversation through charter renewal. And there’s nothing like pre-announcing your departure to weaken your negotiating hand.

Her position is relatively collegiate at this stage. She recognises the need for a new system of governance and is suggesting an enhanced BBC board with a separate body for regulation. That’s not dissimilar to the suggestion from the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee.

It’s been clear for some time that the BBC Trust was compromised. Under Lord Patten it was too ready to be both defender and cheerleader for the BBC. Rona Fairhead’s suggestion aims make it clearer where responsibility for governance lies.

Which is why I was surprised that she ruled out Ofcom as a potential regulator saying the BBC’s complexity means it needs a dedicated and bespoke regulator.

As someone who’s developed new broadcast and digital services that have had to contend with the 800lb gorilla that is the BBC I think that’s disappointing. If we want to level the regulatory field, a single regulator seems to me to be the most sensible answer.

 

2015: my five predictions for the media year ahead.

2015_vuurwerk_900_450_90_s_c1_smart_scale

Having started this blog in 2014 with a series of predictions, it seems sensible to keep up the tradition. You can see how successful I think last year’s were here. Naturally, predicting the future inevitably means egg on the face for those foolish enough to try it but I’ll give it a shot anyway.

1. Podcasts are back in fashion.

There’s nothing like success to breed imitation and Serial, the podcast investigation of a murder case and trial has been a phenomenal success. Sarah Koenig’s drawn out story seems to have been averaging around a million and a half downloads an episode. It would be wrong to say that this came out of nowhere; Serial’s an off-shoot of the brilliant This American Life on NPR. But these are big numbers.

Podcasting’s been around for more than a decade now . When it first began it promised a new multimedia future for print products and I’ve written elsewhere about my efforts as a podcast producer, including setting up The Bugle. But for much of its history, podcasting has been the unloved child of multimedia content. It was quickly eclipsed by online video. I remember going to a strategy meeting at The Times at the tail end of 2006 and being asked about my plans for a new slate of podcast products for 2007, and causing consternation by saying podcasting was over – it was now all about online video.

Well, maybe I wrote podcasts off to soon. But the success of Serial shows once again that overnight success rarely happens overnight. You need to support teams and products over the long-term and give producers the space to fail as well succeed. And a long-term commitment means strong nerves and resilience as you wait to see a return on your investment. It means allocating hard pressed resources in the face of budget pressures. It also means learning lessons from competitors and using the medium to the full. And it puts story-telling back at the heart of audio journalism.

Some commentators have said that Serial is unlike anything else out there. I’m not sure that’s true. It feels very American to me and very much a child of its NPR roots. But it is true to say that it doesn’t sound like anything on British radio or newspaper sites. Be assured that’s about to change. In the same way that Snowfall led to a rash of imitations, Serial is about to get some inferior but heavily promoted competition. And its pick-up by BBC Radio 4 Extra means that Serial inspired documentaries are likely to feature heavily in this spring’s Radio 4 Commissioning Round.

But now podcasts are back, shouldn’t they be called something new with the announcement that Apple is killing off the iPod Classic?

2. The TVisation of the web

It’s long been a truism about digital that TV hasn’t made the most of new formats and mechanisms for securing the audience of the future. To begin with dial-up and slow broadband connections meant that the experience for web video was so poor, TV companies felt able to dismiss the new upstart medium as having an irredeemably poor user experience.

That’s all over now. The exponential increase in broadband speeds has allowed a TV-like experience to be delivered by a new generation of suppliers.  Up until now that’s meant platform owners such as Netflix or YouTube have seen big benefits but there are two distinct trends in place at the moment that are changing that.

Firstly, the lo-fi. The punk, just do-it, ethos of Stampy, Zoella and others has captured the imagination of a generation who appear to be less engaged with TV. This is about content makers becoming stars on new platforms and new styles of video-making. And if you’re over the age of 25, you just won’t get it.

Secondly, the high-end. For example, Kevin Spacey’s House of Cards or Vice trying to corner the market in Millennial broadcast news. This is about replicating a traditional lean-back TV experience using a different delivery mechanism.

The web is moving closer to a broadcast platform. Yes there’s interactivity but as Twitter has shown, it’s not essential for success. And this is post-text – or at least a staging point on the road to post-text. Back in the CB-radio-like days of the 90s and early 00s it seemed everyone would be a publisher – now it’s clear publishers and platforms will be corporates and that talent and content can be sourced from everywhere. And that is a broadcast model.

And who does broadcast and high-end lean back experiences? TV companies. My guess is that 2015 is, finally, the year the TV industry fully embraces digital as an entertainment medium and not just a threat to their core business.

3. Towards a sustainable future for papers

The newspaper industry continued to show two distinct trends in 2014: the decline of print and the growth of digital.

That will continue and accelerate in 2015.

The industry is still drunk on digital numbers, but three, or perhaps four, clear business models are emerging. Advertising supported, subscription and advertising, and philanthropic and membership. I expect those to continue to consolidate during the next year and I also expect newspapers to continue to cut costs as the digital advertising fails to fill the hole left by the decline of print adverts.

I also wonder if we might not see a return to products providing an edited bundle. While the trend towards personalised news continues, for me there remains value in seeing someone else’s take on the news. Relying on news to find you via your Twitter feed can be just too samey.

4. The content bubble deflates

Money has rushed in to new digital products. Name journalists have established new brands. Digital native producers have built successful new platforms. And some astonishing values have been put on the new players.

So, will this continue through 2015? I don’t think so. The valuations look distinctly frothy to me. There’s a lot of old media money being thrown at new platforms but with money comes obligations. There’s a lot of people trying to establish market share, with no clear route to profitability. You’d think the legacy media would be sensible enough to see the warning lights here, but that’s far from guaranteed.

My guess is that the content bubble will deflate this year. Probably slowly, although I wouldn’t be shocked to see a high-profile closure. And if there are any external economic shocks that degrade the advertising industry, it may be bumpy.

5. The first UK-wide digital election

It’s already begun, of course, but the coming UK general election will be the first fought using social media as the primary battlefield – especially if the TV debates fail to go ahead. At the last election, social media was still in the early adopter phase; now it’s mainstream and I expect all the parties to use it heavily in the run up to May.

What’s less clear is what the nature of that engagement will look like. I don’t expect social media to feature a particularly positive campaign. This will be about parody, pastiche and mocking your opponents’ positions. There will be enormous amounts of half-truths, spun facts and campaigning hyperbole. Journalists will have an enormous job to do separating the fact from the fiction.

Still, it was ever thus. And it’s likely to be enormous fun.

Top posts of 2014

1024px-John_Oliver_crop

One year into this blog, and that’s about 358 days longer than any previous blog I’ve attempted, here’s the top five performing posts of the last year.

1. On John Oliver quitting The Daily Show

2. Channel 4 News live in Tottenham

3. Who’s making great online video?

4. Why Al Jazeera English needs to think again about digital news

5. Behind the scenes at Al Jazeera

The John Oliver post was the runaway winner, thanks to retweets by Andy Zaltzman and loyal Buglers around the world.

The online video comparison did well on Linkedin. I also tried reposting a few things on Linkedin but there didn’t seem to be much traction. More inspirational business leadership blogging required for cut through there.

With Google implementing HTTPS searches, search terms are no longer a hugely interesting resource using WordPress’s native analytics. But the most searched term of the last year was unquestionably Richard Zackheim, the new Deputy Editor of ITV News. Relatively little has been written about him so my short blog welcoming his appointment performs absurdly well on Google. Still, I’ll take the glory where I can get it…

 

BBC News cuts – the gap between perception and reality

How do you do more with less?

That’s the conundrum the BBC News cuts announced today are trying to solve.

I’m not going to go into which posts are closing and whether that’s right or not – there’s still a lot of detail to come out.

But I would just flag up a couple of things.

Firstly the difference between the rhetoric and the reality. James Harding says he couldn’t find any fat to cut, and then demonstrates how much fat there is to cut. Back office savings are being implemented throughout this process – for example the closer integration of BBC World and BBC News Channel. A no brainer.

The other issue which leaps out is Panorama cutting staff reporters. On paper this looks like a sensible, modern move. Jim Gray is clearly thinking about the Dispatches model, where content is commissioned from independents, or in this case freelances, rather than having expensive staff sat around producing very little.

That sounds, and is, sensible.

But it will play appallingly. “BBC cuts Panorama” is the headline that its legion of press officers will now have to firefight tomorrow, and it’s the underlying perception it will now have to fight in the years until the next licence fee renewal.

That’s a tough sell when you’re expanding as yet unproven digital projects – look at this reaction in the New Statesman.

And there’s still the unresolved issue of cutting services licence fee payers use to support the expanding costs of the World Service, which they don’t. The BBC Trust also chose today to fire a warning shot on the closure of BBC3, pointing out the problems of reaching young, ethnically diverse audiences.

Broadly I approve of the strategy on display here. But when pushing for radical change, it wouldn’t do James any harm to look at bit more supportive of some of the best elements of the BBC’s legacy and to look as though he’s safeguarding the interests of licence fee payers.