BBC staff issue warning over “damaging” plan to merge flagship radio news programmes
27 March 2019
BBC journalists have issued an urgent warning and call for support over the planned merger of two of radio’s most important radio current affairs programmes, the World Service’s Newshour and Radio 4’s The World Tonight.
Members working on the programmes say it will severely damage the news coverage, undermine the distinctive voice of Radio 4's only evening news programme and World Service radio's flagship, and is unworkable.
The merger would result in the loss of six production jobs and put the remaining staff and presenters under unacceptable and potentially unsafe levels of pressure and stress, say staff.
The plan is to have one team producing and one presenter presenting both programmes – going straight from Newshour, which is on air between 20.00 to 21.59, to The World Tonight which is on air at 22.00.
Journalists working on the programmes said:
“This is madness, unless the idea really is to throw The World Tonight under the bus. It would also do great damage to Newshour. The idea that one team can make two good and different evening news programmes with one presenter back to back is extraordinarily ill-conceived and impractical. All we are asking is that one of the most fundamental and precious public purposes of the BBC, to provide accurate and impartial news, current affairs and factual programming of the highest editorial standards so that all audiences can engage fully with issues across the UK and the world, should not bear the brunt of cuts when money needs to be saved.”
The NUJ chapel said it would be impossible for The World Tonight to provide in-depth coverage of UK news and late-breaking political stories – such as a parliamentary vote on Brexit - as the presenter would be on air broadcasting a different programme and therefore unavailable to pre-record interviews or get briefed on latest developments.
The cuts are part of the total £80 million of savings to be made in News – with only half of that target made to date. BBC management claims the merger will save £567,000 per annum. The NUJ chapel said the BBC could save much of the money by cutting management posts in the department and that large sums had recently been found to award senior managers substantial above-inflation pay increases.
The corporation is under fire for spending £10 million on launching BBC Sounds, its podcasts and music app aimed at a younger audience, while raiding the budgets of Radios 2, 3 and 4. The BBC has also been criticised by the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee over the so-called EastSpenders scandal – the project to revamp the soap opera’s set which has cost £87m, £27m over budget.
The BBC also faces the headache of how it will pay for the free licences of over-75s, which cost £745m by 2022 — more than its entire budget for radio and online content in 2019. The NUJ has said it must tell the government it must take back payment for this benefit.
Michelle Stanistreet, NUJ general secretary, said:
“Creating a shot-gun wedding for these two programmes by having one production team and presenter is a nonsense. The need for well-resourced news and analysis could not be greater as the public attempts to grapple with machinations of Brexit. The World Service’s reputation will also suffer if its distinctive style and raison d’etre is diluted. The plan requires the presenter to be on air for 2 hours and 45 minutes back-to-back every night, moving from a World Service programme to a domestic programme. This clearly cannot work. It’s time the management sat round the table with the union to work out a plan which preserves the quality and integrity of both these important programmes.”
Newshour is BBC World Service radio's flagship news programme, on-air twice a day, every day. World Service English has a (growing) weekly audience of 79 million listeners around the world, including approximately 15 million in the US who catch WSE via public radio. As the flagship, Newshour spearheads the World Service’s reputation and editorial impact around the world and drives the increase in our global audience figures. It also earns a significant amount of money for the BBC from its partnerships with re-broadcasts especially in the US (none of which has ever come back to Newshour). The network and programme have a significant audience in the UK (a weekly reach of about 1.5m), but the biggest audience is outside the UK and staff fear the cuts will have an impact on the global reputation of the BBC and its impact in terms of soft power for the UK.
The World Tonight
The World Tonight is a long standing and respected news and current affairs programme with a loyal audience of around 1.5m. Almost 20 per cent of the available radio audience at 10pm listens to the World Tonight. The audience grows as it gets later. Audience research shows the programme provides a boost to Radio 4's listener figures at 10pm. The most recent available research, from 2016, showed very high audience satisfaction with the programme. The audience valued the programme's capacity to provide depth on a range of stories, and the programme's coverage of UK news.