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Insider: January 31, 2020

Follow-up to the BBC column Apple upload slowdowns?

ICYMI, on Tuesday I wrote a detailed piece about the challenges facing the BBC (and other similarly constituted public broadcasters) in 2020. Thank you very much to the readers who got in touch or shared it. It seems like a few things I put there resonated with people, but the part that prompted discussion above all else was the idea that events are accelerating away from the BBC since last December’s general election in the UK towards an inevitable-feeling and fundamental shift in role for the corporation.

The usual slow pace of change around the BBC has sped up noticeably. Already this month the Director General announced his departure as well as a geographical restructure, and just this week there have been several other developments in some of the threads I highlighted to watch. Here are the updates:

(1) Job losses. BBC News announced on Wednesday that it would be cutting around 450 jobs in order to hit its target of finding £80 million of savings by 2022. News currently has around 6,000 employees, 1,700 of them outside the UK. Fifty of the jobs that will go are from the World Service, a move that was announced at the end of 2019.

In addition to the news jobs that will go, two entire TV news programmes are also being shuttered: The Victoria Derbyshire show (which airs on BBC Two and the BBC website) and World Update from the World Service. There will also be a review of how many presenters are on the BBC’s rosta, with a view to potentially finding more savings there.

The former closure has caused a bit of an outcry, with Derbyshire herself disputing on Twitter the reasoning behind the show’s demise. The timing was also somewhat unfortunate, with Derbyshire making the shortlist for a Royal Television Society award for network presenter of the year the day after it was confirmed her show would end.

Director of News Fran Unsworth accompanied the cuts announcement with some explanation of how the news division will be pivoting away from traditional broadcasting and towards digital outlets. “We need to reshape BBC News for the next decade in a way which saves substantial amounts of money. We are spending too much of our resources on traditional linear broadcasting and not enough on digital,” she said.

Leaks from inside Unsworth’s briefing to staff suggest a larger restructuring will take place in the BBC’s news division as well as the job losses, with “new multi-skilled story teams which will be producing stories for all outlets” to avoid overlap and redundancy when multiple shows cover the same events. There were even some diagrams showing how the new system will look.

Although not actually part of the announced job cuts, yesterday there was a big shakeup in BBC radio too. Sarah Sands, editor of BBC Radio 4’s flagship morning current affairs show Today, handed in her resignation and will depart from the corporation in September. “I come from a different world and I was never going to be a lifer,” she wrote in an email to her staff. She will have been at the programme for three years when she leaves. The editorship of Today has been traditionally regarded as one of the big jobs in British radio, but it’s also a tricky and potentially controversial post — especially in a time when the government is supposedly refusing to put up a spokesperson for interview on the show.

And as if that wasn’t enough turmoil to be going on with, we come to…

(2) Greater parliamentary scrutiny. At the start of a new parliament (ie after a general election), the various parliamentary select committees get new chairpeople to lead their investigations. This week, MPs have chosen to oust the incumbent from the Culture, Media and Sport committee, Damian Collins, in favour of Julian Knight, who is an ex BBC journalist with a known agenda around the corporation.

Whereas Collins took the committee in a more global direction, running inquiries into fake news and trying, unsuccessfully, to compel Mark Zuckerberg to give evidence in the UK parliament, Knight has indicated that his attention will be focused closer to home. “It’s time for a root and branch, no holds barred review into the future of the BBC – how it is funded and what its role should be in our national life,” he told the right wing newspaper the Daily Express last week.

Knight has also proposed that his committee should lead the effort to find a new future role for the BBC. I suspect he will use his new platform to continue to ramp up the pressure on the BBC; expect executives to be called to give evidence and some radical proposals coming out of his office over the next few months.

(3) The young people thing. You’re probably bored of me saying it by now but: the BBC’s regulator-mandated requirement to reconnect with young audiences in the UK has ceased to be a wonky media topic and become something of a general talking point. After this piece on the subject was published in the Guardian on Tuesday, a fair few BBC staffers went on the defensive about their work and its audience.

“BBC Minute [a BBC World Service digital vertical] reaches 5.5 million+ millennials & Gen Zs in Nigeria, Lebanon, Hong Kong (to name a few),” wrote Olivia Le Poidevin, a World Service video journalist, and others chimed in too.

However, some confusion has arisen around this. The BBC’s ability to reach young people around the world is less relevant to the future of the license fee than its ability to reach young people who are resident in the UK (and might potentially be paying said fee). Ofcom, the BBC’s regulator, has a responsibility “to secure that audiences in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England are well served”, as mandated by Article 43 Section 3c of the BBC’s Royal Charter.

It’s people in the UK under 35 that Ofcom has previously warned are turning away from BBC services in large numbers, and that’s the demographic the BBC needs to show it is reaching for the current license fee arrangement to endure past 2027. Whether or not the World Service is getting lots of video views among millennials in Lebanon is a completely separate issue.