Monday, 8 November 2010

The real threat to BBC journalists

THERE is something about being employed by the BBC which shields employees from the real world. That sort of naive idealism is part of its charm and also why it sometimes has a head-on confrontation with the Government, whichever party is in power.
But I fear that its journalists are about to get a rude awakening. The National Union of Journalists has warned the BBC it faces a fresh wave of disruption to news broadcasts that could affect programmes over Christmas.
But in this household at least we actually preferred the presentation of the news by bosses as they battled over the weekend to keep programmes on air during a 48-hour strike organised by the NUJ in a row over pensions.
Perhaps that was because high-profile presenters such as Nicky Campbell, Fiona Bruce, Bill Turnbull and Huw Edwards supported the walkout, leaving the way for less histrionic replacements. Perhaps it was because the facts were given without the endless verbiage of one journalist interviewing another.
The next 48-hour strike, is planned to take place on November 15 and 16. But the NUJ really needs to warn its members what would happen if the BBC was run as a commercial organisation.
The bean counters would be saying to the editorial managers: “Well you managed quite well without those journalists. Why do you need so many?”
Someone in accounts would be measuring the number of stories filed without the journalists and comparing the number with what happens when the journalists are at work.
Quality would be out of the equation. The time taken to research or interview contacts or monitor sources would be ignored.
And next budget time, the head count would be queried and the number of journalist jobs would be cut.
There would be no redundancies, no announcements, no high-profile confrontations. Vacancies would be left unfilled. Journalists would be allowed to retire early.
Particularly vulnerable will be the producers and desk heads who monitor reports to ensure they are accurate and relevant.
Already the war of words has started. BBC chiefs said only one in six employees had joined the strike and that its output was not as badly affected as it feared.
In an email to staff, director general Mark Thompson said: ‘No BBC services have been blacked out or gone off air. However, a few programmes have been lost and our ability to deliver the normal scale and quality of news and journalism to our audiences here and around the world has been impaired.’
Mr Thompson knows that if he doesn’t admit some impact during the strike, he will be undermining his own case when he goes into battle with the bean-counters.
But in austerity Britain with a Government bent on cutting costs, the journalists will not be sure of him winning those battles in the wake of their own strike.
If the BBC doesn’t tackle a £1.5billion pension deficit by putting a cap on rises in pensionable pay at one per cent after April they will have to cut costs elsewhere. It will not have escaped those who hold the purse strings that a deal had been agreed with the other major union, BECTU, which represents camera crew and technicians.
It is only human nature that when the cuts come, the journalists will be in the front line.

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