The BBC is facing its biggest threat in four decades, the head of its news division told staff, as the national broadcaster announced plans to shed 450 jobs as part of an £80m savings drive in its news service.
With Boris Johnson’s Conservative government questioning its impartiality and pressures growing over its public funding model, Fran Unsworth said: “Never in my career have I felt this organisation being under threat in the way I do now.”
Ms Unsworth, who joined the BBC as a trainee in local radio in 1980 and became director of news and current affairs in January 2018, made the frank admission in a speech to staff to confirm the job cuts on Wednesday.
Under the restructuring plans, described as “an existential threat” by unions, BBC News will cancel the daytime Victoria Derbyshire programme and reduce spending on BBC2’s Newsnight and some BBC World Service shows.
But even after the two-year programme to reshape the service, which aims to save about £40m, the 6,000-strong BBC News service will remain by far the biggest network of any European news organisation.
The plans have caused particular dismay among staff because it will usher in a more centralised, “story-led” model for organising the organisation’s journalism, which could weaken the independence of some news programmes.
The changes are underpinned by the analysis that affluent, well-educated parts of the BBC’s audience are “over-served” by the broadcaster’s news service, particularly through BBC Radio 4 and programmes such as BBC 2’s Newsnight.
In a statement, Ms Unsworth said the BBC had to “face up” to how its audience was changing. “We need to be honest with ourselves we are spending too much of our resources on traditional linear broadcasting and not enough on digital,” she said.
During a rowdy staff meeting at the BBC, Ms Unsworth was publicly challenged by multiple members of staff, including Ms Derbyshire, who has complained of finding out about her programme being axed from newspaper reports.
Ms Unsworth apologised for the way the way the plans emerged in the press while at the same time stressing the acute political pressures faced by the BBC at this time.
The cuts come as Mr Johnson has criticised both the BBC’s funding through the licence fee and the impartiality of its editorial output, branding the corporation the “Brexit Bashing Corporation”.
At the same time, Rupert Murdoch’s News UK has announced it will launch a new radio service, The Times radio, which takes aim at BBC Radio 4’s core audience.
Michelle Stanistreet, general secretary of the National Union of Journalists, said the cuts driven by government policy on overall BBC funding were putting “the very existence” of the corporation in doubt.
“The government should be supporting and properly resourcing the corporation — an organisation that wields significant soft power across the globe — instead of indulging in ideological retribution,” she said.