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.


Axe the BBC World Service not BBC3

Lord Hall’s comments to the Oxford Media Convention that salami-slicing of budgets would have to end has prompted this take from The Daily Mail, suggesting BBC3 or BBC4 will be axed.

Poor BBC3. It’s never been loved by decision-makers. It just doesn’t make programmes that they like, obsessed as it is with subjects like Sun, Sex and Suspicious Parents or Snog Marry Avoid?.

But it’s not going anywhere. It serves an audience that’s hard to reach for other BBC TV output and has a decent track record of innovation, especially in comedy. Little Britain, The Mighty Boosh and Gavin and Stacey all started out there. It’s also hard to see Director of Television Danny Cohen axing his old alma mater.

And poor BBC4. Loved by the middle-aged and middle-class, it could have become the TV version of Radio 4. But the budgets were never quite big enough, the ambition wasn’t quite large enough and it never really defined itself as anything other than what BBC2 used to be before endless series of Masterchef.

If the Mail is right and a channel is going, and I’d say it’s still a pretty big if, BBC4 is probably the one in the firing line. Although whether the savings are big enough is a reasonable question. BBC4’s budget in 2012/13 stood at £50 million, BBC3’s at £89.9 million. Both of those figures are already being reduced as part of the DQF process.

So, here’s a modest proposal: axe the BBC world Service instead.

Part of the reason why the BBC is having to make savings is the insistence by the government that the World Service’s budget is met from the licence fee rather than direct grant from the Foreign Office. In the next financial year, the first under the new funding arrangement, that will cost £245 million pounds. That’s almost exactly £10 for every licence fee payer. Money that’s spent on producing content for audiences outside the UK. Is that equitable?

People who work at the BBC will insist that the World Service IS the BBC. The keeper of the sacred Reithian flame. But in these days of reduced funding and greater value for money for licence fee-payers is it really justifiable to spend a quarter of a billion pounds on services for audiences who don’t have to pay while cutting services for those who do? I think that’s becoming an increasingly tough position to defend.

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