All change for the besieged BBC

It’s been a rough few months for the old British Broadcasting Corporation. With the many criticisms of its coverage of the general election still ringing in its ears, it has seen a surprise fall in the proportion of the British public who see it as a trustworthy source of news. The new Tory government has also been hinting heavily it will review the validity of the license fee in this new era of subscription services. Last week it drew ire for the brutal and mishandled axing of the Victoria Derbyshire show, which has been lauded over the past few years as being a bastion of the sort of public interest journalism the BBC is publicly funded to provide. And now, they have announced cutting 450 jobs in the newsroom.

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Bearing bountiful challenges

Little wonder, then, that director general Tony Hall chose last week to step down – with some interpreting it as a pre-emptive move to prevent further strictures being placed on its ability to report on a sitting government.

The reality is, though, that the issues facing the BBC run too deep to be sorted with a single resignation. The entertainment and news worlds have changed, with subscription to entertainment services the norm and the manner in which we increasingly consume news fundamentally changing. Those critical of the BBC have pointed out that it has been slow to adapt – and then when it has, it has done so poorly.


It has, for instance, announced its plans to produce a competitor of sorts to the New York Times’ flagship news podcast The Daily. Critics pounced, immediately pointing out that not only does The Daily have a vast staff, significant investment and a solid commercial strategy, but the BBC already produces high quality audio news available as podcasts. It really can’t do right for doing wrong.

The same is true for its streaming service Britbox (in partnership with ITV and a little bit with Channel 4). In an attempt to adapt to the era of streaming services, and looking for a new source of incidental revenue, the service was launched last year to a similar raft of criticisms. Why, asked the critics, is it not possible to easily find a list of what is available on the service? And why was the marketing so soft that nobody was quite sure whether it would be better to stick with all the BBC content currently on rival services like Netflix? Currently, it seems like Britbox’s target audience is wealthy expats in Hong Kong, and the rest of the world can go hang.

The reality is that while discrete chunks of the BBC enjoy good reputations among audiences, the BBC as a whole doesn’t make enough of a case to young people that it is worth their time and money. As Jim Waterson wrote for the Guardian:

“Even the BBC News website, the dominant British news website, is struggling with an increasingly ageing readership because younger audiences are more likely to encounter headlines on social media rather than visit the site or app directly. There is also a broader perception that the broadcaster’s news output is dominated by a ‘mainly white, middle-class and London-centric point of view’.”

The irony is that the new initiatives being championed by the BBC – Britbox, trial streaming on Twitch and a selection of news podcasts among them – are exactly what the corporation needs to do to remain vital. Where it currently appears to be falling down is in actually proving to audiences that it can bring quality to bear on those initiatives and offer something above and beyond that which is available elsewhere. Nobody doubts that David Attenborough’s documentaries are unparalleled in terms of quality, or that the BBC World Service is probably the best news source globally. But when it comes to the realities of our content-saturated world, the BBC is playing catch-up with smaller, nimbler media companies.

Victim of political machinations, a media landscape that threatens to shift underneath its feet, and the inability to affect the change it recognises it needs to make, the BBC is struggling. The worst part is that there is no obvious way for the monolithic Beeb to find its way back to secure ground – and the public will be the ones to lose out as a result.

Chris Sutcliffe

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Martin Tripp Associates is a London-based executive search consultancy. While we are best-known for our work across the media, information, technology, communications and entertainment sectors, we have also worked with some of the world’s biggest brands on challenging senior positions. Feel free to contact us to discuss any of the issues raised in this blog.