BBC Mark II: Mr Byford gives the corporation's journalism a makeover
After unprecedented cuts in the BBC's newsrooms, Mark Byford is overseeing a critical rebranding of the corporation's journalism. He tells Ian Burrell of his pride at running the biggest current affairs operation on earth – and answers his critics
Monday 14 April 2008
It looks like a giant spinning cricket ball, maybe one of Shane Warne's "rippers", a red revolving sphere that signals a new joined-up era for the biggest news organisation on the planet.
BBC News is next week getting a make-over, an exercise in ramming home to the licence payers, indeed to the whole world, just how many stories it is pumping out on television, radio and online. So News 24 is disappearing, to be renamed the BBC News Channel. And the global channel BBC World will henceforth be known as BBC World News, just to remind dozier viewers exactly what it does. John Humphrys on the Today programme has been told to say "here is the BBC news..." and the news section of the BBC website already carries the fresh branding.
BBC News. BBC News. BBC News. That's the message. Design wizard Martin Lambie-Nairn, who came up with the BBC balloon and the original Channel 4 logo among many other television "idents", has been called in to give the corporation's journalism a "crisper, cleaner" look both in terms of studio lay-out and on-screen graphics.
Apparently only 12 per cent of viewers of BBC regional shows recognise that they form part of the corporation's news output, so those programmes will carry the "BBC News" tag as well, alongside new idents featuring local landmarks such as, Antony Gormley's Angel for 'Look North', or HMS Victory for 'South Today'.
The man who has overseen all this, sits with his back to a bank of television screens, in his office overlooking Wood Lane. Mark Byford was narrowly pipped by Mark Thompson to getting the chance to play with the entire BBC train set as director-general but is immensely powerful nonetheless: "I have responsibilities for UK-wide news, global, all international news and all local ...[I am] head of all the BBC's journalism," is how he puts it.
He spins round to face his TV sets. "Look! CNN, Sky, that's it!' he says, snapping his fingers as he barks out the brand name of each rival, "Sky News, CNN.com...that's it. But with the BBC we've got News 24, we've got the Ten O'Clock News, we've got so and so. No! It's all part of one connection which is the BBC News family."
This simplification of the branding of BBC journalism is costing some £550,000, which Byford, 49, thinks is cheap at the price (or "very effective stewardship" of licence payers's cash), and it may also reduce some of the intense rivalry between the corporation's diverse news offerings.
It is not very long since the more theatrical of BBC journalists were wailing about "year zero" after the announcement of the largest number of job cuts the corporation's newsroom has ever been asked to find, but the strike action that was expected to follow was averted after long negotiations between unions and management.
Since then, the BBC has seen off ITV's head-to-head challenge on the 10pm bulletins, and at the Royal Television Society's journalism awards the corporation – despite being beaten by Sky to News Channel of the Year – went home with nine gongs.
Byford denies that any internal inquest has been held over the news channel snub, something which did happen at the BBC the year before, after a similar defeat. "If the judges decided that, then that's their judgement. The time we say 'You got it wrong' shows an unconfident and inward looking organisation. We set out to serve the audiences, we don't set out with our journalism to win awards," he says. "If Sky News win best news channel, good luck to them, they're a player of class. But I would say News 24 is the best news channel in Britain. In reach terms News 24, is now on 7.6 million a week, Sky is on 4.6 million. When audiences are asked 'Which is the best news channel in Britain?' the BBC is clearly ahead."
With Panorama reduced to half-hour slots, the Channel 4 chief executive Andy Duncan took the opportunity in these pages last week to claim that his strand Dispatches was now the leading current affairs show in Britain. "That's for Andy to say," responds Byford, his excitement revealing traces of his Yorkshire accent. "Panorama, two years ago, was at 10.15pm on a Sunday night and all the pieces that you were writing and others were 'Is it dying and when will it go?' [Now it is shown] 48 weeks of the year, bang in peak at 8.30pm, with very decent audiences in a very difficult slot. Panorama has been revitalised, with younger audiences coming to it and I think it's on a roll."
Rival broadcasters have poached some of the BBC's leading presenters, notably Natasha Kaplinsky (Five) and Dermot Murnaghan (Sky). "The BBC is not in any difficulty of naming top presentation talent," Byford counters, saying he would rather not list them, for fear of leaving anyone out. "Dermot and Natasha, good luck! Am I worried by what it means for the BBC? Absolutely not!"
Having said he won't name the presenters, he then starts reeling them off. "Fiona, we shouldn't name them, but I could go through the lot...One - Sophie, Kate ...George on the Six ...Sian ...what about John Humphrys? I haven't got to the Today programme, great! Jim ...and er, er, the presentation there. Five Live! We've got great presenters!"
Byford then throws a question back. "What was the last BBC news story you saw or heard?"
"Erm, something from the Today programme this morning..."
"Well, that's brilliant! That you remember from us that actually it was from Today. Wonderful!"
"It was Evan Davis's breakdown on what the mortgage crunch means..."
"Go for it! That makes me very proud!"
(Laughter from The Independent)
"No, seriously. Because impact is around memorability. There are pieces that you remember where you think 'God, I'm glad the BBC exists because that was brilliant!'"
The deputy director-general then dwells on some of his own recent BBC favourites. "Impact is about people remembering that the BBC does fantastic work and can name it themselves. For me, that might be about (John) Simpson in Zimbabwe, or it may be a great piece I saw in Leeds last week or Paul Mason in China on Newsnight, that's stuff which in my view is truly memorable broadcasting because it's telling you new things in a fantastically innovative way."
Byford, the son of a chief constable, thumps the tub with the enthusiasm of the lead drummer in a High School marching band. But he is acutely aware that the changing media landscape leaves him vulnerable to analysis of the shrinking impact of some of the BBC's more traditional journalistic offerings. "Linear television programmes – the Six the One, the Ten - are inevitably in steady decline. They're not in decline in the sense that they're not important, they're absolutely critical, but when I joined the BBC in 1979, the Nine O'Clock News and (ITV's) News at Ten were getting much bigger audiences than the Ten O'Clock News and the News at Ten now. The BBC News at 10pm is very successful, with 4.8 million average viewers, but it's never going to get the level it got 15 years ago because there's more choice and people are using different platforms for news."
Hence the rebranding exercise, as the tub-thumper drums out the message that, whether you are coming to BBC News via your PC, your plasma screen or your car radio, it's all part of the same experience. "We want to touch as many people as possible with our content offer. There's 80 per cent of the population touching BBC journalism every week in the UK, that's 37 million people. That's a lot of people," he says, and giggles.
"We are holding on to [audience] reach but recognise that we have got to increase in some platforms as others inevitably decline. If we stood still and never shifted we could go down to 65 per cent over 10 years. Well, as a publicly-funded licence fee organisation where journalism is its absolute bedrock, reach is critical. The public own the BBC, they pay for it, so we've got to touch everyone."
He denies that the corporation is increasingly ignored by younger people, saying that the BBC's reach is still between 65-70 per cent for under-30s, and that the new 8pm short bulletin has found a new audience with 1.8 million of its 6 million viewers not watching any other source of BBC television news all week.
Globally, the BBC has an audience of 233 million, with a stated intention to expand it to beyond 250 million by 2012, partly through the help of the new Arabic TV service (to complement Arabic radio and online) and the launch later this year of a Farsi TV service.
Byford claims that the often-criticised BBC World, a commercially-funded operation, is turning a corner. It is "on course to break even", he says. "It's miles better than it was five years ago in editorial direction and content. Everywhere you travel people say that. When I was director of the World Service and Global News people would sometimes say 'It's not as good as it should be', they now say 'BBC World, I couldn't do without it.' That's terrific!"
The network soon to be known as the BBC News channel has also had its problems, he concedes. "How far shall I go? Part of the reason why News 24 is now being rebranded as BBC News, is because three to four years ago when Helen Boaden became director of BBC News, News 24 was not central enough in the organisation. It was seen as at the side and a distant part," he says. "It needed to improve, it absolutely needed to improve. It was second in the market, it had a sticky launch ...we all know that. In the last three years by placing it at the heart of the organisation, we've put a lot more focus into it and I'd say the performance of News 24 has been absolutely brilliant. I salute the team for it!"
The revolving cricket ball that will identify BBC News is on closer inspection a globe surrounded by hoops that recall red Chinese ribbons or the rings around Saturn. But this new look, to be unveiled on 21 April, is a subtle exercise, retaining what Lambie-Nairn sees as the "existing brand assets" of the logo in its Gill Sans typeface, the colour red, the globe, and David Lowe's pulsating theme tune.
Byford is famously a music obsessive himself who, in spite of having five children, goes to gigs every week. The day before last, he says, he enjoyed a BBC performance by Radiohead. "They're geniuses!" He has to hurry as, ahead of the rebrand, he's flying out to India's Golden Triangle for a short holiday with three of his children, a snap visit to the BBC's Delhi bureau included on the itinerary.
At the age of 20, Byford spent one holiday doing work experience at the BBC, and has been there pretty much ever since. "If you are in my position, you are in a position where in '79, when you started off in a three week holiday job, you never dreamed you would be responsible for all the BBC's journalism," he says. "You are trying to build on its strengths for the long term. You are moving it forward for the future." Terrific!
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