The BBC has really shot itself in the foot this time. In transforming its rolling news service into a global platform, it has sacked a clutch of its most experienced presenters.
Gone are Ben Brown, Jane Hill and Annita McVeigh. Most unforgivably, soon we will no longer see Martine Croxall on our screens.
In all, ten top presenters have been axed and, with them, decades of broadcasting craft, not to mention the invaluable rapport established with the public who regularly tune in.
Broadcast journalism is a competitive business and hard-won careers can be quickly lost in ratings wars. Stars’ trajectories wax and wane and big beasts are forced out to make room for up-and-coming talent (as Ed Stourton discovered when Justin Webb got his Today programme slot in 2008).
But even by TV’s dog-eat-dog standards, the BBC’s behaviour this week has been brutal. Presumably, pay packages played a part in the mass cull. The likes of Croxall, Brown and Hill cannot have come cheap, though they weren’t in the league of BBC super salaries.
They are victims of the corporation’s controversial cost-cutting measures, which will see the merger of the News Channel with BBC World News and the slimming down of the presenting team.
They are making way for fewer and newer faces, no doubt on lower wages, though they are reported to be receiving significant rises.
Apart from Christian Fraser, already presenting prime time domestic news, the fresh crop are not exactly household names, drawn predominantly from the BBC’s international coverage.
When the changes to the news service were first announced, seasoned journalists were told they had to audition for their jobs with screen tests, a move described by some insiders as “humiliating” after years in front of the camera.
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The BBC said that the process was in accordance with its HR procedures but you wonder at personnel practices that permit the sacking of long-serving staff whose jobs are clearly not redundant.
Some, understandably, didn’t bother to go through with the charade and quit before they could be fired.
One, Joanna Gosling, who had been with BBC news for 23 years, said in her final broadcast that the job was “personal”: “We come directly into your home to tell you what is happening, good, bad, funny, sad.”
She is right, these positions are personal. In fact, the person delivering the day’s headlines is often someone we spend more time with than our nearest and dearest.
While we can switch channels, and therefore presenters, back and forth during the course of an evening, we invariably return to our favourites for the breaking stories, the unfolding disasters or political scandals, and the regular reporting of major events, such as elections.
Most of the BBC’s adult audience will have formed bonds with the familiar people on the box or those populating the airwaves.
You only have to look at the Twitter feeds of the departing Hill, Gosling and co to gauge the level of public loyalty to BBC stalwarts.
“What a terrible mistake they are making”; “the BBC have lost the plot!”; “are they out of their minds?”; “guess there’s no point in watching the BBC News channel from this spring onwards”.
But who cares what we, the licence payer, thinks of our national broadcaster? The bigger issue in the night of the long knives is what purpose it ultimately serves.
The BBC’s defence is that it must save a further £285 million, after trimming more than £1 billion in the past five years, following the announcement last year that the licence fee will be frozen for the next two years.
It wants to reinvent its output for a digital age, and attract younger viewers. But the young, spoilt for choice with other, more accessible news providers, will tune in, like we did, when they’re older. That is, if there is anything left to see or hear.
Along with its popular anchors, the BBC is also shedding local radio stations, and has already dropped its nightly review show, The Papers (fortunately, there’s always Sky’s Press Preview).
It is accused by its own correspondents of “pursuing subscribers abroad” rather than retaining the local audiences who subsidise it.
In the past year or so, the national broadcaster has lost a succession of big hitters, including Emily Maitlis, Jon Sopel and Andrew Marr, to higher paid roles on lower profile outlets (the Global-owned LBC and podcasts).
Some, frustrated by the BBC’s impartiality rules (that saw Croxall temporarily taken off air over perceived anti-Tory bias last year), departed to “find their voices”, but they now appear to be the first wave of a trend, where individual cachet is considered expendable.
The Beeb is deluded if it believes its digital heft can be built on a diminished brand. In sacrificing its solid pros (according to the Times, some 70 UK posts are being offset by the creation of 20 positions in the US), it has lost sight of what it does best.
So, what’s to be done? We can switch to Sky, of course, or, in this, the age of the strike, maybe we should form a picket line outside BBC HQ and protest. It’s the least we can do for our friends.
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