Strength lies in diversity

The BBC should not sacrifice the individuality of its news programmes in its drive to cut costs

The ‘value for money’ reviews ordered by the BBC’s new director general Mark Thompson are expected to recommend some fairly swingeing cost cuts in the news and current affairs directorate.

No one knows where the axe will fall, but those conducting the review must be facing some tricky dilemmas.

The BBC has – without question- the best resourced news service in the UK and probably in the world. It’s an enormous operation with dozens of outlets, including two 24-hour channels dedicated to news, four television channels, seven radio services and a comprehensive online service.

No one knows exactly how much it costs to deliver all this news, but the provision of this ever-expanding output must be the single largest element of the corporation’s annual programme spend.

The most obvious area being examined by the ‘value for money’ folk must be costly duplication. This means questioning why two or more people are researching, planning, producing or reporting the same story for the BBC at any given time.

Some insiders suggest such duplication is rife – especially among planners, reporters and specialist departments on the newsgathering side.

This really is a dilemma for the BBC, which has worked hard to create a diverse and varied output -not only across all its radio and TV channels, but also by giving a distinctive ‘feel’ to individual programmes on the same channel. This is why there are special Ten O’Clock News correspondents who don’t generally appear on the Six O’Clock News. How to eliminate duplication without removing distinctiveness presents a real challenge.

Having worked in low-cost news programming for most of the past decade, I know the best way to save money is to cut back on the expensive bits (primary newsgathering and original journalism) and concentrate resources in the cost-effective bit (inhouse production, post-production and presentation).

If you take this idea to its extreme conclusion, then in theory the BBC could operate a single ‘mother service’ – a super-resourced BBC24 – which could be cannibalised or simulcast at will to serve all the BBC’s TV, radio and online outlets. That would probably save about 75 per cent of the annual news spend, but it would also turn the BBC into a monolith churning out an identical product in different-sized packages.

Clearly that is unlikely to happen, but the temptation must remain for those looking for cost reductions within BBC News to make savings on the journalism and compensate for it by reprocessing the same raw ingredients for different internal customers.

BBC News should certainly get rid of unnecessary or indulgent duplication or staff or resource, but it must not risk damaging its distinctive and original journalism.

In an increasingly crowded market for news, the thing that really marks out one news programme from another is content, not style.

Bush’s response to the ‘death’ of Yasser Arafat was premature

The US election last week reminded us of two important facts: the fallibility of exit polls and the ever-present pressure on every TV news journalist to call a result or make a judgement.

After being badly burnt by inaccurate predictions four years ago when some of the US networks mistakenly declared Al Gore the winner, the US and British election programmes I watched last week were highly cautious, although most pointed out – incorrectly – that a big turnout favoured the Democrats.

Those people watching in Britain who couldn’t stay up beyond 1.30am would have gone to bed anticipating the end of the George Bush era. Those who stayed up all night witnessed the emergence of very different story, with only a contested result in Ohio standing between Bush and a second term in office.

By 6am election supervisors in Ohio were warning that it could take 10 or 11 days to confirm the result, at which point I imagine a number of TV producers collapsed or blew a gasket. In the end we only had to wait another 12 hours for John Kerry to concede that Ohio was not going to go to the Democrats and Bush was the winner.

In theory this kind of knife edge contest is the very stuff of true news drama. In practice the consumer gets bored and edgy waiting for the denouement.

We enjoy a tight finish, but ultimately we want a result.

This is why correspondents and reporters are discouraged from sitting on the fence. We want them to stick their necks out and earn their money by calling a result even if the result is uncertain or the facts are unclear.

The day after the US election there was another bout of TV news confusion, this time over the reported death of Yasser Arafat.

Once again the 24-hour news channels could do no more than speculate, unable to confirm whether the Palestinian leader was dead, brain dead, or in a reversible coma.

Correspondents outside the hospital gates were asked for the latest; some such as the BBC’s Jeremy Bowen had to admit there was no latest. It sounded lame but at least it was true.

Some news programmes ran versions of their pre-prepared obituaries and President Bush, asked for a reaction to Arafat’s death, told a live global TV audience that he hopedGod would bless his soul.

A few minutes later BBC News 24 carried a breaking news strap with the words “Reports he is clinically dead are denied”. Unfortunately it was on a medium closeup of the US president at the time.

The fact is that rolling news waits for no man and everyone – even the leader of the free world – can get caught out in the world of instant communication.

Chris Shaw is senior programme controller at Five

Next week: Bob Satchwell

by Chris Shaw

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