BBC news faces cuts to finance digital TV

The BBC plans swingeing budget cuts of 30 per cent over five years in its news and current affairs operation, in order to finance the launch of digital TV services.

The news, confided to staff in a series of briefings this week, provoked sharp criticism from journalists and production employees, who feared the cuts would lead to compulsory redundancies and declining quality in the BBC's core news services.

"This will spell bad news for the BBC's schedule, including Panorama and other flagship programmes," warned one senior journalist.

But the BBC defended the cuts, which will help pay for the introduction of a new 24-hour news channel. "We are now entering a very competitive age, with more competition from specialist channels," a BBC news and current affairs spokesman said. "It's a question of survival."

He refused to rule out compulsory redundancies, but stressed that the corporation would retrain staff to operate more efficiently in the digital age.

Virtually all parts of the current budget of pounds 190m will be affected, staff were told. News-gathering will see its funding frozen over five years, resulting in a 15 per cent reduction in real terms, after anticipated inflation.

Production operations will see the deepest cuts, following the introduction of new technology that will allow journalists to prepare programmes at a digital work- station.

"We must be more eff- icient and we must be able to deliver even more programming on a restrained budget," the spokesman said.

The cuts are the first sign of the price the BBC will pay to introduce its ambitious blueprint for the digital age, unveiled earlier this month.

In addition to the new 24-hour news channel, the corporation promised extended services, subscription channels and improved sound and picture quality.

Announcing the new services, John Birt, the BBC's director-general, conceded that the high costs of going digital would have to be met partly through what he called "increased efficiency." It is expected that other sections of the BBC will also be asked to cut their budgets in anticipation of the move to digital TV.

The BBC's all-news channel is believed to be budgeted at about pounds 15m a year, about half the amount spent by Sky News. "With this kind of money, there will be more interviews and far less reporting and analysis," a senior broadcast journalist claimed last night.

It is not yet clear whether there is a demand for 24-hour BBC TV news. Radio Five Live features round-the-clock news, with a strong emphasis on sport.

The BBC's news operations have already undergone radical changes, following the introduction of the so-called "bi- media" approach, whereby journalists file for both radio and TV.

There was fear last night that the additional cuts could lead to greater use of "video" journalism - where the journalist conducts the interview, operates the camera, and edits the final item. That approach is widely used by low-budget cable stations such as Channel One, which concentrate on local news.

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