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The BBC must not let news be the victim of reform

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In the days when Armani-suited TV executives displayed their charismatic socks while lounging in directional chairs and making rulings about the tastes of the Great British Public, the old saw was that you could never axe Newsnight because it was beloved by politicians.

A BBC2 channel head looking to make their mark in the credible world of arts documentaries and risqué drama would bemoan the curse of a serious, public service nightly programme on which everyone in Westminster loved to appear. An interview with Jeremy Paxman was a vital step in the training of a cabinet minister. 

Somewhere along the line — and who can say whether the launch of Times Radio and GB News provided government ministers with more palatable interviewers such as their own political colleagues — Newsnight became less sacred. Less of a protective shield for the licence fee, more a discomforting reminder that holding power to account can be positioned as one-sided when the power hasn’t changed for 13 years. 

Years of whittled-down resources and prominence have made Newsnight’s retreat inevitable. The audience votes with its remote, or at least with the click of catch-up streams on iPlayer, and you simply can’t force people to watch BBC2 at 10.30pm. There is nothing wrong with examining output and determining that investigative journalism should be placed throughout the schedule rather than in the warring fiefdoms of Panorama, Newsnight and the Today programme (which long since became a discussion programme).

And yet the agonised outpourings of distinguished former Newsnight journalists do contain a warning. There is little guarantee that today’s BBC News can consistently produce investigative journalism throughout the schedule. While the corporation is blessed with some brilliant, dedicated and largely ungovernable reporters (which are, let’s face it, the best sort), they are hampered. The BBC is thrown into spasm by criticisms that its news output follows an agenda. With honourable exceptions, it is experiencing one of its “explain, don’t expose” phases. Again, this is on the surface a reasonable position — many will claim it should confine itself to contextualising events.

The BBC News reforms will, the corporation says, achieve a £7.5mn saving, part of a £500mn shortfall following a flat licence fee settlement agreed with what was unarguably a hostile government. The £7.5mn is a curious sum — it seems both too much and too little from a total of £500mn. Why does news and current affairs need to save that amount? The most powerful argument ever advanced for the continued existence of the BBC is still that of Lord Reith: educate, entertain but above all inform. News, which cannot be packaged up and resold to Disney+ or binged ad nauseam on Netflix, should be vastly more expensive — not subject to a mandatory trim every renewal period. 

Any organisation, but especially one focused on public service, must be adept at bending its own remit to launch brilliant new products while never quite turning anything off. BBC3 is reborn. BBC Radio 6 Music was saved by the dads of Stoke Newington who enjoy Andy Weatherall remixes, a much underestimated niche. No BBC decision is forever and it may yet be that a dedicated group of late-night public service journalism fans can save Newsnight, but that misses the point. 

The question should never have been “how can BBC News save £7.5mn?” but rather, “how can we create the most independent, robust, trusted news service, in a world of misinformation, disinformation, anticomplexity and disaggregation?” Without confident and unimpeachable news output, the corporation itself has little reason to exist. And behind that lies the most difficult thing of all — placing two feet on the ground and staring down the government of the day.

janine.gibson@ft.com

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