Up to 450 jobs will be cut across BBC News in a major restructure of the organisation that will reduce its news output and size, with Newsnight and 5 Live News among programmes directly affected.
In a briefing revealing the cuts to staff this afternoon, titled “modernising BBC News”, director of news Fran Unsworth set out a vision of a new pared down and more connected BBC.
- September 21, 2021
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The publicly-funded news organisation has long battled claims that it is too large and unwieldy, with journalists from different news programmes within the BBC often covering the same stories.
“A modern newsroom needs to work smarter, we need to collaborate more and put the BBC news brand first because when we do we have so much more impact,” Unsworth told staff.
Proposing a new “story-led” approach, Unsworth said the BBC News department would need to reshape itself and invest more heavily in digital, above traditional “linear” TV where audiences are declining.
She said the BBC had to meet changing viewer habits amid concerns that it is failing to reach under-35s who get their news online.
The BBC has already announced it will create a new version of its news app, with Unsworth saying it needed to be “the leading place for people to find out what they need to know”.
Under plans that will reshape BBC News for the next decade, Unsworth said it would create new specialist production teams, story teams and a small team of commissioners responsible for overall editorial strategy that will work across the organisation. Staff are expected to receive training.
“This is a partnership,” she said. “Programmes, story teams, commissioners – all working as one. Lots of conversations about ‘what is the agenda? What is the thing that we are doing?’”
Unsworth said BBC News had to “maintain distinctiveness” and not create a “massively homogenised output”, but said it could be done in a way that made its journalism “travel further”.
The former BBC World Service director said the changes would result in a “reduction in the number of planned stories we do” which meant the broadcaster needed to be a smaller news organisation.
“There are other newsrooms around the world who are also considering or adopting this approach to how they deliver journalism,” said Unsworth, giving the examples of ABC in Australia and CBC Radio in Canada.
But she said nothing of this scale had been attempted before by a news organisation. “It will make us the most modern in the world,” she said.
A review of the number of BBC News presenters and how they work will be carried out under the plans, but Unsworth did not tell staff where cuts would fall, only saying senior managers would also be impacted.
Newsnight and 5 Live News job cuts
The National Union of Journalists however has said 60 jobs are expected to go across the BBC’s radio network, with the rest in TV.
The union has reported that Newsnight will lose 12 posts, with the BBC halving production of its four weekly in-depth films and reducing spend on investigative journalism.
It said Radio 5 Live News will also lose 12 posts, but will take on two new digital roles for a net loss of ten, with more sharing of radio bulletins across the BBC part of the new collaborative approach.
The NUJ said five news presenter roles would also be cut.
The total job loss figure includes 50 from the BBC World Service, which were announced late last year.
Morning news bulletin World Update on the English-language BBC World Service will also close.
Michelle Stanistreet, NUJ general secretary, said: “These damaging cuts are part of an existential threat to the BBC, and a direct consequence of the last disastrous, secret licence fee deal the BBC agreed with the government.”
BBC News employs some 6,000 staff, with 1,700 of those outside the UK.
Unsworth said the changes would mean BBC News meets its target of £80m savings by 2022, of which roughly half the BBC said it has already saved.
But she warned staff the savings had to be delivered, saying: “If we don’t stick to our guns the BBC will run out of money.” She added: “If there’s any political flak over it, we’ve just got to be robust about it.”
Victoria Derbyshire: ‘Were we lied to?’
Among the casualties of the cuts is the daily Victoria Derbyshire Show, details of which leaked last week.
Unsworth apologised to the show’s team – some of whom, including Derbyshire, attended today’s briefing – for the way the news emerged. Derbyshire said she learned about it in press reports.
Despite public outcry over the decision to cut the award-winning morning current affairs programme, and a petition to save it signed by more than 30,000 people including former guests, Unsworth gave no sign she would be reversing the decision.
She said: “Our in-depth research has revealed the audience at the time it is broadcasting to at 10am on BBC Two and the News channel is quite small and it’s older than the target audience that the programme is aimed at.
“Broadcasting this excellent journalism in a linear programme is expensive and not delivering the size of audience we want for that.”
Derbyshire later told Unsworth that she had “changed the goalposts” in order to justify closing the programme.
“Our remit was original journalism, reaching under-served audiences and growing digital figures, all of which we have achieved,” she said. “Never have you said to me you need to grow the linear audience.”
She went on: “We were told when we were cut from two hours to one, which we understood and we accepted graciously, that that would future proof us against future cuts, were we lied to?”
Unsworth replied: “No you weren’t lied to Victoria, because things change. We have to look at what is the savings target that we are given, how we are going to achieve it? What is the most effective way of doing it and I’m really sorry about it. It’s painful. I know it’s painful.”
The news director said of the public reaction: “I have to take that on board and have to think about how we’re addressing it.”
However, Unsworth said she wanted to build on the digital success of the show and would put “a substantial number of the team at the heart of how we deliver news, so they can have that impact across the whole of the news operation”. She said she planned to speak to the team next week.
‘We have to be the voice of the UK’
The cuts fall at an already turbulent time for the BBC, which has faced claims of political bias in its reporting, a raft of equal pay complaints and a backlash over its decision to cut free TV licences for over-75s.
Director general Lord Tony Hall, who has headed up the corporation for the past seven years, announced last week he would be stepping down this summer.
Unsworth said the BBC had to work “a lot harder” to represent all communities within the UK, “not just in the big cities and big towns but everywhere”, continuing a drive to escape the so-called “London bubble”.
She said a modern news operation “isn’t one where it can feel like all the big decisions are being taken in a single room in London”, adding: “We have to be the voice of the UK and we need more journalists based outside of our capital.”
She said journalists at the BBC’s news hub in Salford, Greater Manchester, would have a voice in the changes being proposed.
‘The most important news organisation in the world’
Tackling BBC News culture, Unsworth said it needed to “learn from the world of digital disruptors” and “not be afraid to test things in order to innovate”, telling staff: “We need your help to develop something which delivers for you and for audiences.”
Unsworth said BBC News had achieved its biggest daily website audience the day after the UK general election last month, with 39m visits.
She said its Facebook account now had 50m “likes”, making it the “biggest news account on Facebook”, ahead of the New York Times and CNN.
“The BBC has survived for the last 100 years because it has had the courage to adapt and change along with its audiences. I believe that we have a really, really vital role to play nationally locally and internationally,” she said.
“We are fundamental in contributing to a healthy democracy in the UK and around the world. But it is my duty and my responsibility to take tough decisions.
“We have to build a modern news operation which is the fit for the future. But I’m really optimistic and I’m really hopeful that we can achieve all that going forward.”
She added: “Just think what we can achieve with our world class journalism in the future, if we adapt we can win, we can continue to be the most important news organisation in the world and I really believe that this is the best way to fight for the BBC’s future.”
Taking questions after the briefing, Unsworth heard concerns from one staffer about the BBC’s push into the digital market and the competition this would create with commercial publishers.
BBC vs press
The Sun has said the BBC News website “effectively operates as an online newspaper” and that planned new podcasts “will crowd out private competitors”. Sun owner News UK owns Talkradio.
Unsworth replied: “I think there is no doubt that our friends, enemies, in the press, largely enemies, or some of them are anyway, would like to put us into the broadcasting model solely. ‘You just get on doing that stuff, leave us to do all the digital development’.
“The problem with that is… that under-35 audience are getting all their news from digital services – social media and the internet – they’re not watching linear TV bulletins. So how can we continue to take the money off them if we’re not giving them any news?
“So we wouldn’t be fulfilling our purpose if we didn’t serve these audiences in digital. And it might give us a problem with the press, but it’s just a battle we have to win.
“Ofcom are telling us, we have a report by Ofcom into news and current affairs recently, they said: ‘You’ve got to do more for younger audiences.’
“Go figure, this is how we’re doing it and if the press don’t like it and the Sun don’t like it well I’m sorry but that’s just tough because that’s our responsibility.”
Picture: Reuters/Neil Hall