Net Losses in the Newsroom

TV journalists should start to worry. Their fate may be as grim as that of the press

Nick Cohen

British newsrooms have become dismal places. The press is shrinking from the centre of national life, as the Net takes away paying readers and advertisers. At the recent Convention on Modern Liberty, Alan Rusbridger, the editor of the Guardian, warned that local papers would soon start disappearing, and “for the first time since the Enlightenment, major cities will not have a newspaper to report on local politics”. He did not say what might eventually happen to the national press, but then again he did not need to.

I spoke after him and told the audience that it should be just as concerned by hostile judges, who were making the cost of investigative journalism prohibitively high for what we used to call the broadsheets by allowing every kind of scoundrel to use Britain’s litigant-friendly libel laws. I should have added that the judiciary had also conjured a privacy law out of thin air and was using it to stop what we used to call the tabloids exposing the private lives of the rich and famous.

Commercial television, meanwhile, is in as bad a state as the commercial press. ITV, once the greatest British television network, is now a sad and shrunken thing. Channel 4 does not have a workable business model and Five is so poor it is hard to see it surviving.

Across the private sector, journalists look with envy and a little fear at the growing power of the state-funded BBC. It has always been important, but the fall in its rivals’ income is leaving it like America after the fall of the Berlin Wall – the sole superpower in an emptying field. The BBC uses public money to weaken newspapers with its websites and rival broadcasters by enticing their stars away. BBC journalism seems secure to outsiders, less so to those on the inside.

All the state’s protection cannot shield it from the pressures of our times. New technology allows co-ordinated protests from emailers, bloggers and posters on websites. Editors have always built careers on claiming to know what their readers and viewers want. The Net creates the illusion that they can indeed discover with scientific precision that an urgent national mood is swelling, which they must satisfy.

The BBC is particularly vulnerable because it is supposed to be both an impartial and a national broadcaster. The ideal impartial journalist is an essential but unattractive figure. He or she must be bloodless and passionless, never allowing their coverage of controversial stories to sway their emotions and make them commit to one side. Like civil servants, they should be able to maintain an almost inhuman detachment. The national broadcaster, however, should be able to commit and affirm the national mood, which is almost impossible to gauge when new technology allows minorities, often very small minorities, to appear to be the authentic voice of the masses.

Whatever you think of the Gaza Appeal – and I could not see the harm in helping the victims of war as long as the money does not end up in the pockets of clerical fascists – the BBC decided not to broadcast it because it wanted to protect the neutrality of journalists covering a contentious conflict. The result was not an understanding of the difficulties of reporting the Middle East, but a furious reaction not only from the aid agencies, but also from Douglas Alexander and Ben Bradshaw, Labour politicians who need to be told that they have no right to put pressure on free broadcasters. The rage seemed genuine, but deeper examination showed that it was a perfect example of a synthetic Net-led protest. Jean Seaton, an historian of the BBC, pointed out that “at the height of the controversy, the BBC Trust had logged over 20,000 complaints about the decision not to screen an appeal, but the actual number of donations to the Disasters Emergency Committee appeal numbered only 13,000.”

In other words, the emailing protestors wanted the BBC to validate their emotion that this war was a bad business far more than they wanted to help Palestinians by putting their hands in their pockets. The BBC stood firm, but there is no room for complacency. If it is to be the last serious news provider in Britain – and, God help us, it may well be – it will need to maintain a large staff of journalists, producers and engineers. To afford their journalism, it must therefore cut back on the extraordinary levels of pay for the 50 executives who earn more, often far more, than the Prime Minister, and on the multi-million packages for the stars.

The BBC shows no intention of doing so. If any BBC journalist doubts me, they should listen again to the interview Caroline Thomson, the chief operating officer, gave to John Humphrys last November.

With admirable vim, Humphrys laid into the £440,000-a-year manager and asked what a pensioner paying the licence fee was meant to make of “the enormous salaries being paid to BBC executives”.

“I understand that concern,” said Thomson.

“So you will take a pay cut?” asked Humphrys.

Thomson floundered for a moment, then revealed her true thoughts. “I will certainly take a pay cut if asked to, and I hope you will too, but,” and here she regained her composure, “but joking aside, the licence fee is an enormous privilege and we have to make sure we’re spending it properly. As you are aware, we are going through a big efficiency drive. We’ve cut £300 million a year as a result of that and we’ve also lost 4,000 staff.”

I have yet to see a better expression of the ideology of the BBC’s elite. In their own minds, they justify their sumptuous and undeserved rewards by sacking professional producers and journalists. Two consequences will flow from their lopsided cost-cutting, I believe. First, you must grasp, Thomson and her colleagues spend their days in meetings in air-conditioned rooms. Their sheltered lives mean they are more likely to be swayed by populist or pseudo-populist outbreaks of emotion than reporters and editors who have experience of the complexities of reporting the world. I would not expect them to stand firm the next time there is a demand that the BBC lower its standards.

Second, although my newspaper colleagues may not realise it, BBC journalists are in the same sinking ship as the rest of us. We should feel no schadenfreude. Someone has to bring us the news, but I am damned if I can see who is going to do it.

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