This week, staff and managers of the BBC News website will gather in what friends and former colleagues have described as both a birthday party and a wake. The BBC News Website will celebrate its 10th anniversary just as it is about to cease as a separate news operation.
I won’t pretend that this post isn’t personal. I joined the Guardian a year ago, but for eight years before that, I worked for the BBC. I joined BBC News Online in October 1998 as the first online reporter outside of the UK. For most of that eight years, I worked for the BBC News website, or BBC News Online as it was called before management felt that it could use a rebranding.
A few weeks ago, I read “BBC News Interactive will be ‘an empty shell’ in two years” by Jemima Kiss on Guardian Blogs with a heavy heart (disclaimer: I’m now the Blogs editor at the Guardian).
She quoted BBC News Interactive chief Pete Clifton, who said:
If you come up to the seventh floor in two years, it will just be an empty shell, hopefully.
Hopefully? I can’t see my former online colleagues being filled with hope. Despite his talk about the online staff joining the radio and TV staff to “make the best platform for our journalism”, it’s hard to see this as anything but happy talk. While Pete was at AOP, I was having dinner with a friend and former colleague, and he confirmed that Pete was basically managing himself out of a job. He’s not the first manager at the BBC to do this over the last few years, but Jemima put it well when she said:
It sounded like news interactive is about to evaporate, to disappear into the ether like it never existed – as if online news does not deserve, demand or need its own dedicated department. Surely integration isn’t as brutal or as straightforward that?
This isn’t integration. This is the systematic dismantling and destruction of a site and a staff that has helped lead the way in online and interactive journalism.
Yes, the site will survive, and I’m sure that remaining staff will soldier on. But the online managers and editors, who have built up so much experience over the last decade, face an uncertain future. The problem is that, inside the BBC, the News website simply does not have the political capital to withstand the powerful managers in TV. Everyone inside Television Centre knows the pecking order. Radio is the poor cousin to TV, and online is the poorer cousin to radio.
Case in point, I was told by another former BBC employee that she recently asked someone still there what would happen for the News site and its staff. The response?
They will do what they’re told.
The arrogance, the shear arrogance. And it’s all too believable.
Integration should be greater than the sum of its parts, bringing together the combined audio, video and interactive talents of the BBC. When I was there, I knew that to achieve the kind of multimedia storytelling that I wanted, I could learn much from my radio and television colleagues. And through the camaraderie and shared sense of purpose, we achieved great things in Washington and at the BBC News website.
Nick Newman came up with the great idea to turn over the election coverage agenda to our users back in 2000, and Tom Carver and I flew, both literally and figuratively, across the US in an Election Challenge. We covered 6,500 miles in 6 days using web conferencing gear, a mini-DV cam and a portable sat dish to webcast once a day, answering questions posed by visitors to the website. In the wake of the 11 September 2001 attacks, I travelled to New York three months, six months and one year after, marking the dates with text and video storytelling with correspondent Peter Gould and Simon Oldfield, Sarah Dale and Nick Buckley from the News website. And on the suggestion (and later great encouragement) of Steve Herrmann, I blogged during the last US presidential election, again taking interactive journalism a step further. And the news website has done so much more in pioneering multimedia newsgathering, including their laptop link-ups, Joseph Winter’s great work in Africa, just to mention a few projects.
At the BBC’s Washington bureau, we did feel almost like Greg Dyke’s “One BBC”, although we would get the most ridiculous duplication-of-effort requests from London. At the time I left Washington, we had more than 30 requests for President Bush and his cabinet from the various ‘flagship’ programmes at the BBC. One senior aide on Capitol Hill once quipped to a BBC producer that with so many flagships there mustn’t be any room for other ships in the BBC armada. But we did do integrated journalism in Washington. I covered the Microsoft anti-trust trial for online, radio and TV as I did the Millennium Bug, although I spent much of the night doing two-ways and finding new ways to say “nothing much to report”. But it was this that made the BBC both a great place and a great place to work.
The BBC News website Washington job was one of the best jobs at the site, and I look back fondly on those days. But when I tried to take my new media skills to other areas of the BBC, they were neither used nor rewarded, rather I was criticised for my lack of TV or radio skills.
In the year before I left, many of my colleagues both inside and outside the BBC tried to talk me out of it. Why would I want to leave the BBC? I told them simply that in four of the last 5 years, 2003-2007, the budget for the News website had been cut. In 2003, BBC management tried to cut the site’s budget by 25%, but only managed 18%. I took a year off to do a video journalism attachment in Washington, not knowing if I would have a job to come back to. The cuts in 2003, reportedly at the suggestion of the highest levels of BBC New Media management, came because “Friends Reunited runs on 6 people, why does the News website need a few hundred?” With budget cuts for the foreseeable future at BBC News, how could I stay? My pay wasn’t keeping up with housing inflation in Washington and there were no opportunities for me. The pioneering work that we had once done was no longer possible with the budget cuts.
I would love to think that, under an integrated news operation, the BBC News presence would flourish online, but knowing the way the BBC works, I can’t realistically see that happening. The BBC’s internal politics are so poisonous that some of its flagship programmes are at open warfare with one another, calling up Sky to offer their guests instead of sharing them with their BBC colleagues. That was why Greg Dyke’s “One BBC” was the punch-line of a joke in the Washington bureau. I can’t see how this will suddenly change overnight, especially in light of the scrabble over resources as these cuts bite deep. Politics is the allocation of resources, and one surefire way to ratchet up the political battles at the BBC is to make the pie that everyone fights over just that much smaller.
Real leadership at the corporation, which it does have, should put a stop to the petty battles of managers and remind them that the real competition is at Sky or CNN, not down the hall. But that is not the atmosphere at the Pit of Vipers, as one friend and former colleague refers to Television Centre. I’m not sure that anyone could pull the BBC together. As anyone who has worked there knows, it’s not one corporation but rather a thousand fiefdoms.
Now, I fear, through this arrogance and so many missteps, big and small, the BBC will see what started as a trickle become a flood. In February 2006, I told a BBC executive who I count as a good friend that I was seeing a brain drain. The number of digital natives leaving the BBC, not only in News but across the organisation, I feared would leave the BBC incapable of realising its digital ambitions. He had seen it before he said, as had I. During the dot.com boom, many of my colleagues the News website left for lucrative (albeit often short-lived) jobs in the booming sites of the late 1990s. But this more recent brain drain was different. I saw people leaving not because there was silly money to be made but because they were frustrated. They felt throttled and hemmed in by bureaucracy, infighting, regulation and technical bottlenecks, especially after the forced sale of BBC Technology to Siemens. (For those not familiar with the sale, the BBC had reached its borrowing limits. The government wouldn’t increase the limit so the BBC needed to sell something, fast. When I left, the annual service contract for an iPaq handheld computer was three times the high street value of the device itself, and if I recall correctly, that didn’t even include the data charges.)
Now with this forced integration of radio, TV and online news, I fear that they will lose – or, at best, relegate to the sidelines – the online management, editors and journalists who have built a world class online news service. Done wrong, this could be a huge step backward for the BBC, back to the bad old days of ‘shovelware‘ and simple re-purposing.
I worked side by side with so many respected journalists there, and I really felt pride in what we were doing. As I said, I know that they will meet this challenge as best they can. They have spent five years miraculously finding ways to do more with less. Now, they will have no choice but to do less with less.