Richard North, 29/01/2020  

Hidden behind its customary paywall, The Times is telling us that the BBC is to announce hundreds of job cuts across its news division. This, we are told, is part of the Corporation's cost-cutting drive, said to be the "most painful" in recent years.

One obviously sympathises with anyone about to lose their jobs – although the redundancy packages will undoubtedly be generous – but one wonders how the BBC manages to keep that many staff occupied on news production.

However, one learns from its website that the BBC is the largest broadcast news operation in the world with more than 2,000 journalists and 48 news gathering bureaux, 41 of which are overseas.

But, alongside its journalists, BBC News also employs some 700 people in its resources department, providing "a comprehensive range of dedicated location, editing, graphics and studio facilities, and operational staff for BBC News, including IT and engineering services".

There is no date on the web page, but it looks to be quite old – around 2003. But a straightforward Google search yields nothing more recent. There is a more recent report dated 18 November 2014, entitled "The provision and consumption of online news – current and future" on the main website but that yields a page not found, although a sideways approach finds it.

It seems odd that an organisation so intent on telling us everything about everything that it deems fit for us to know – and what to think about it – is extraordinarily reticent about its own affairs, but then it is difficult to be surprised.

If the BBC does get rid of 250 staff members, however, it would only represent about one percent of its workforce, so the cuts would hardly be as savage as painted, and relatively easily absorbed by such a large organisation. 

Among other things, the BBC will compensate by re-using and re-packaging news reports through the day across different programmes and channels, reducing the practice of sending several journalists to cover the same story and having separate production teams for each.

One might like to see the broadcaster following the recent example of Morrisons, which is to fire 3,000 of its middle managers and appoint 7,000 workers on the ground. But, in the case of the BBC, it should perhaps stop at the 3,000, especially as the latest annual report tells us that only about 800 of its news staff are in on-air roles (presenters, correspondents, reporters and on-air editors).

Going back to the 2014 report (which is the most comprehensive evaluation we seem to have), it tells us that the BBC, like all other news providers, is finding that its "consumers" are shifting to digital technology. This is entirely unsurprising, but there are other aspects which are of interest.

Firstly, while the BBC is the market leader, it has seen its share moderate, as the market becomes more competitive. The BBC's share of online engagement (pre-mobile phone) had declined to 27 percent from 36 percent over two years, with significant growth in the BBC's linking to third parties.

What I found especially fascinating was that BBC News online users were more than twice as likely than the average to consume content on newspaper sites. And one way of looking at this is that the same (diminishing) pool of customers is being shared between the BBC and other media titles.

If that is still the case, it would very much fit with my own experience where many people are simply opting out of the news cycle while those who remain engaged are trawling through more and more titles (although rarely reading in depth).

This "multi-sourcing" behaviour seems to be replacing quality (such as it was) with quantity, although with so many news providers delivering exactly the same stories, one wonders why people bother.

What is unknown about this process, though, is the degree to which "consumers" now rely for their detailed information on primary sources, using the media as "noticeboards" to alert them of developments.

With Barnier's most recent speech, for instance, the media alerted us to its presence but, with the text on the official Europa website, and the video on YouTube, there was little need for the distortions and filters of the media reports. For the UK Parliament, we have the online Parliament TV and the printed record of Hansard shortly thereafter.

The media, therefore, is no longer the provider of detail. That can be obtained elsewhere. But, for those who are interested, its reactions become part of the story - often illustrating where different biases lie. We can see the original material for ourselves, and just how the media processes the information.

Twitter also serves the "noticeboard" function, but while the news media makes use of it, so do direct information providers such as the European Commission, and even individuals such as Michel Barnier. Thus, there is no need to rely on so-called news providers who so often clutter their sites with trivia. There is more utility in blocking their sites and going direct.

More recently, we've seen the UK government understand that it can use the internet to secure direct access to its audience, especially after the emergence of celebrity interviewers intent of collecting political scalps. Lately, even Johnson has been speaking directly to people, without having to rely on media intermediaries.

This, perhaps, explains the BBC's need to cut back on the scope of its operations. Since people need the media less, when real information is required, there is less need of its services, beyond it providing news alerts and quick summaries of the news agenda.

How people take their news and how they react to it, though, is a subject of a great deal of research, much speculation and some mystery. How all the information sources interact, and their relative effects, is simply not known.

This, however, doesn't stop the Guardian (always a close ally of the BBC), from pontificating about the subject. Currently, it is enlisting Tom Mills, lecturer in sociology at Aston University and author of The BBC: Myth of a Public Service.

Under the headline. "It's not enough to defend the BBC – it should be a truly public service", he concedes that the BBC is not only an easy target ideologically but also a soft target politically.

Champions of public service broadcasting, he writes, "have celebrated the principle of political independence", but he argues that even a cursory reading of the BBC's history shows this is nothing but wishful thinking.

The setting of the licence fee, the charter renewal process and governmental powers of appointment have routinely been used to reshape its culture. And this can hardly leave the content totally unsullied and objective.

Mills thus sets out a vision of "a system that is democratic and truly representative of the society it serves in all its diversity" – but that is as far as he goes. He doesn't tell us how this should be achieved.

The problem he faces though is the one he does not address. An institution of the size of the BBC will always be prey to "self-maintenance" phenomenon where its primary concern is its own survival and self-perpetuation. And, as long as the government controls the purse strings through its TV tax, there will never be anything that is responsive to true public need – whatever that really is.

Thus, as Pete asks, does the BBC even deserve to survive? As presently constituted, it is not possible to answer in the affirmative. We can actually do without it.

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