Every time I hear my friend and former BBC World Service colleague Andrew Whitehead on air, I know the Beeb is on strike. Again. Andy is a veteran broadcaster and it’s not that he doesn’t enjoy getting behind a microphone and speaking to the world. But he’s editor of World Service News and no longer has the time to indulge himself with going live and going on air. He’s too busy and far too important for that.
On Thursday, March 28, I heard Andy reading the news and knew what was up. Then I heard Mary Hockaday, my former boss (when I presented The World Today) and was entranced by her crisp, perfectly enunciated, perfectly timed tones. I had never heard Mary on air before – she was always too senior when I was at the World Service. And now that she’s head of the BBC Newsroom, one would almost never expect her to be putting in microphone time. Clearly, the Beeb was really short-staffed.
Of late, it’s been happening far too often for comfort. Mrch 28, February 18, and at regular intervals before that. This, because the BBC seems unable to resolve an inherent – and essential – problem within itself. It keeps wanting to cut back and still do everything it has traditionally done well. And more than that too. But the arithmetic doesn’t really make sense. You can’t do more (or even the same) with less. Staff will have to work longer hours than they should, do less creative work and be more mutinous.
Thursday’s 12-hour strike was mainly about job cuts and workload. As Allyson Bird explains in this piece on why she left the news industry, “People came to demand CNN’s 24-hour news format from every news outlet, including local newspapers. And the news outlets nodded their heads in response, scrambling into action without offering anything to the employees who were now expected to check their emails after hours and to stay connected with readers through social media in between stories.”
She’s right. Journalists are now meant to be on social media when they’re not filing a story. Something’s got to give.
First, the burnt out among the journalist community.
Then, the desire to do something different – and invest the time and energy doing it.
Already, I notice that my old employer, the World Service, is doing lots and lots of ‘cheap radio’, ie getting an endless succession of “vox pops” or people views on air, endlessly discussing everything. That’s cheap radio – and it’s not particularly informative and it’s not the reason the world listens to the World Service.
But I suppose that’s the way it will go because the BBC is cutting about 2,000 jobs over five years as part of its Delivering Quality First programme. Gerry Morrissey, general secretary of the union that represents the BBC’s technical staff, says, “Our members are suffering because the BBC thinks it can deliver the same levels of output with many fewer staff.”
Of course, the math doesn’t add up.
Head of BBC HR Lucy Adams
“The reality is that excessive workloads caused by massive job cuts are already taking their toll with staff reporting more stress, more bullying and more harassment.
“The BBC has a duty of care which it is not exercising currently and it is a great pity that strike action is needed to make senior managers take the issues seriously.”
NUJ members staged a 24-hour walkout in February that changed some schedules and disrupted news output including BBC Breakfast and the Today programme on Radio 4.
The BBC said it was “extremely disappointed” the unions had gone ahead with the latest strike action and apologised in advance to audiences for any disruption to services.
It has said “constructive meetings” had been held with the unions in recent weeks but its position on compulsory redundancies remained unchanged.
“We must progress with those given the significant savings we have to make and strike action simply will not change this,” a spokesman added.