Television

BBC News plans life amid cost cuts

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MUMBAI:BBC aims to preserve the public‘s trust in its impartiality and keep its news independent from political and commercial pressures.

In a speech delivered at VLV Annual Spring Conference, BBC News director Helen Boaden said as long as it holds on to the principles that have guided the BBC since 1927 – to tell the truth as we see it, to the people who need it, independent of government and commercial influence – then BBC News should be in the right shape to meet the difficult challenges of the future.  

     

  “In a robust, deep-rooted democracy like ours, I think our relationship with politicians is a bit like a tug of war. It‘s right that each side should pull. In fact, it‘s part of the democratic process. Testing those in power but being accountable for it. So when it came to the government‘s comprehensive spending review, it was right that we set out to examine the policies and the consequences – and right that our coverage came under scrutiny.”

Scrutiny in different shapes and sizes. Sometimes it‘s a polite letter from an MP. Sometimes it‘s a phone call from a Government Special Advise, or even a Minister – to an Editor. Those calls are often at varying degrees of volume and politeness. “We‘ve even had very public advice from the pposition! As I say, it‘s their prerogative to complain. But it‘s ours, to defend our independence and make the case for our coverage, “ said Boaden.

There should be a balance right between explaining the government‘s plans, why it says they‘re needed – and examining their impact.

“That‘s why we ran wide coverage – across the whole of BBC News, in the nations and the regions – under the heading "The Spending Review: Making It Clear. It seems to me that all politicians, of whatever party, embrace the BBC‘s independence in theory – but have occasional difficulties in practice, especially when they‘re in power. So I‘m afraid that as Director of News, I‘ve got used to the sound of incoming fire,” Boaden said.

She said there was plenty of it when the BCC ran a Panorama programme alleging corruption among Fifa officials – ahead of the World Cup vote. The pubcaster was accused of being "unpatriotic." But afterwards 80 per cent of the public backed the BBC for broadcasting the programme. And even a member of the 2018 bid team said that the BBC had been right to do it when they did.

“It‘s important to do the right thing – whatever the pressure. That way, you build your reputation for independence and impartiality.”

Last year, the BBC News channel had record audiences for many major news stories. It recorded the highest reach of any UK news channel 7.4 million – on the day that Gordon Brown resigned and David Cameron became prime minister. The day after the general election, 7 million watched, and 6.9 million watched the rescue of the Chilean miners.

More recently, on 11 March, the channel reached a new record of 8.5 million for the Japanese earthquake. On the same day, the BBC website, too, had record traffic internationally with 15.8 million unique users.

Boaden said audience research suggests that the ratings for trust and impartiality have also improved over the last three years.

“Well evidence collected by the BBC Trust shows impartiality to be an important factor in determining an audience‘s choice of broadcast news provider. And in a major survey published last year, Ofcom found that 91 per cent of people thought it was important or very important that "news in general is impartial".

“So if partisan reporting is allowed under a new Communications Act – and there are detailed arguments for and against – then the BBC will do everything it can to maintain and strengthen its tradition of impartial journalism.”

That will be the UK pubcaster’s guiding principle for the future. But there‘s a more immediate challenge – money.

With less money available, BBC News needs to row back. “Of course, we are never going to give up on the big stories that matter: covering the uprisings in the Middle East and Africa for example, with a team of specialist journalists. Ensuring we have the best possible Specialist Editors like Nick Robinson, Robert Peston, Stephanie Flanders and Jeremy Bowen,” said Boaden.

However this year, to cut cloth, the BBC only sent one person to the Oscars rather than a full team – and used specialists in London for background coverage on the website.

“We have to try to match our journalism to our budget and to our audience‘s expectations. And that will be hard,” Boaden clarified.

Doing more for less in tough financial circumstances isn‘t new for the BBC – in fact since the Nineties when the BBC started moving into the digital era, it has brought running costs down from 24 per cent of the licence fee to around 12 per cent today – and to nine per cent or less by the end of the Charter period in 2016. These savings have been invested back into programmes and services for the public, including the BBC News website and the development of the iPlayer.

Though the pubcaster needs to do fewer things, the stress is to be a position so that it can do them better. The World Service will be merged with BBC News in 2014. “We believe that the protection of the Licence Fee will be of benefit to the World Service. It will destroy once and for all any idea that because the World Service is funded directly by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, it is omehow not entirely independent. It will protect it from arbitrary cuts as part of the Comprehensive Spending Review when it can lose out to louder voices at the Foreign Office,” said Boaden.

Last year, the Government decided that World Service funding would decline by 16 per cent in real terms over four years. These cuts will bite deeply. Over the next three years, a quarter of the World Service workforce – 650 posts – will go.

“We need to find savings of ?46 million. We can‘t do it all through being more efficient. We need to stop doing things – and that‘s why we‘ve reluctantly called a halt to five language services. There are programmes we are cutting too. This is not being done indiscriminately, however painful it might be. There is a rationale behind the decisions we have made,” Boaden said.

Overall, the changes will result in loss of audience – the pubcaster estimates that there will be an immediate drop of several million.

In order to sustain its services and to cope with the savings, the BBC has decided to share content more effectively.

“For many of our audiences – for instance in Somalia and Burma – we will continue to produce a highly localised offer. But in other markets, the BBC delivers global newsgathering and expertise – which local news providers can‘t do. So a significant shift to a greater proportion of global journalism makes audience and economic sense,” Boaden said.

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