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December 17, 2021updated 07 Nov 2023 5:44am

National Audit Office says journalist morale hit at cost-cutting BBC

By Bron Maher

A report on the BBC’s efforts to cut costs has found that the “prospect of redundancies has affected staff morale” among the broadcaster’s journalists.

The report, published by public spending watchdog the National Audit Office, said the BBC made more than 1,800 redundancies between the 2017/18 and 2020/21 financial years. More than a fifth of the jobs lost – some 385 – were frontline journalist roles.

Within the News division alone, 520 permanent post closures were announced in July 2020 – about 9% of its workforce. About 35% of post closures in News to date have been frontline journalists, although new digital roles have been created.

The auditor said: “BBC surveys show that staff engagement in the News division has been lower than for the BBC as a whole over recent years.”

Despite the reductions, the NAO said the News division had increased the number of TV content hours produced by 4% between 2017/18 and 2020/21 from 4,689 to 4,876. This in part reflected an increase in live coverage during the Covid-19 pandemic, it added.

The cuts caused disruption elsewhere, however: “During the summer of 2021, the Nations division had insufficient staff cover in some English regions during the ‘Pingdemic,’” the report said. “This contributed to the temporary suspension of local news bulletins on breakfast television in England in order to protect the early evening news bulletin.”

The NAO also noted that the Nations division had said in its 2021-22 budget submission that delivering its promised savings “could impact on its ability to meet Ofcom quotas for content in Scotland”.

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The report does not suggest more redundancies, instead saying savings can still be made through “further productivity improvements… from greater use of technology and standardisation of BBC operations”.

“During the Covid-19 pandemic, the BBC had to change certain aspects of how it operated,” it went on. “For example, there was an increase in remote, online content production. At the same time, audiences proved more willing to tolerate lower production standards than thought in certain areas.”

The cuts claimed some high-profile shows. In January 2020 it emerged the BBC was cancelling the award-winning Victoria Derbyshire show — news Derbyshire herself learnt from The Times.

The Andrew Neil Show, too, was cancelled in July 2020. Neil subsequently left the BBC for a £4m deal with GB News, before in turn quitting GB News three months after the channel launched.

Newsnight and BBC Parliament also saw their budgets reduced.

Plans to cut 450 roles at BBC News were announced by director of news Fran Unsworth in January 2020, but delayed due to the pandemic. By the time they began in July the same year, the number of proposed redundancies had grown to 520.

They are part of a “modernisation” of the BBC newsroom which means a “story-led” approach ending teams working on the same stories for different programmes. The transformation is not yet finished, with the BBC telling the NAO this was due to the difficulties of implementing change with people working at home during the pandemic.

The NAO report said that nearly 1,100 of the 1,800 redundancies made across the BBC between the 2017/18 and 2020/21 financial years affected the BBC’s News and Nations divisions.

Staff costs fell “by less than 2% in real terms” in the period, in part due to a pay freeze. Despite the job losses, the total size of the BBC declined by less than 1% because of a hiring surge in the World Service. That push, funded by the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, added approximately 1,100 jobs to the broadcaster, according to the NAO.

Gareth Davies, the head of the NAO, said: “Over the past decade the BBC has consistently made savings and is largely on course to achieve its £1 billion annual savings target by 2021-22.

“However, over the coming years it will need to make significant further savings at the same time as addressing a range of other challenges, not least its declining audience share.

“The BBC must ensure its savings plans do not further erode its position with audiences.”

The BBC said in response to the report: “The NAO report concludes the BBC has made nearly £1bn in savings over the last 5 years – significantly higher than our initial £800m target – and continues to be the UK’s most-used media organisation.

“We will continue to focus on modernising, improving efficiency and prioritising spending on a range of high quality content to ensure value for money for all licence fee payers.”

The National Union of Journalists said the NAO’s findings were “worrying on many different levels”.

NUJ national broadcasting organiser Paul Siegart said: “It is clear the BBC is in for difficult time and is facing yet more cuts in the coming year.

“This makes the need for a good licence fee settlement even more important. Anything less than an increase linked to inflation would be potentially disastrous and would mean cuts to services across online, radio and TV. The BBC has shown its worth again and again during the pandemic but if it isn’t probably funded it will die a slow death.

“It is not a wasteful organisation and has cut a billion pounds from its budget already but to expect yet more cuts on top of those is unrealistic and will slowly destroy the BBC that we all love.”

Picture: Shutterstock

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