Helen Boaden: The good news or the bad news?

Helen Boaden restored the confidence of her journalists in the wake of the Hutton inquiry. But her radical plan to change the way the headlines are delivered comes at a cost of hundreds of jobs. Will quality suffer as a result? She talks to Ian Burrell
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The Independent Online

Helen Boaden, director of BBC News, is a naturally chipper, can-do person, her positivity reflected in her cropped red hair, bright yellow cardigan and golden curriculum vitae. But she's suppressing the smiles today.

At the request of her boss, the BBC director general Mark Thompson, she has had to bring out a big sharp knife and carve deep into the flesh of the BBC News department in the form of cuts of £155m over five years and the loss of up to 490 posts. She must represent these incisions as a necessary modernisation, a rejuvenating surgical procedure rather than a grievous wounding that will inflict irreparable damage to the most core of core functions at the BBC. Either way, she cannot deny that the process will be painful. How does she think her staff will take this?

"I think BBC News people will be keen to move into the digital world for the benefit of the audiences," she says, hopefully. "But in some areas shocked and in all areas unhappy and anxious about some of the efficiencies we are having to make." Shocked. Unhappy. Anxious.

As an award-winning journalist herself, spinning doesn't come easy to Boaden. When she was appointed three years ago she was promptly asked to deliver 15 per cent cuts ("I wasn't told about it at all") and now this.

As part of the "completely radical reorganisation" of the BBC news operation, 17 per cent of middle managers will be shown the door, much to the delight of critics such as the former BBC business editor Jeff Randall, who recently complained in the Daily Telegraph that the corporation employed "a battalion of worse than useless, middle-ranking meddlers with only one aim: to survive long enough to draw a pension ... They exist in a parallel universe of meetings about meetings. They are masters of work creation, digging holes in order to fill them in".

Boaden, 51, is more charitable, acknowledging that these members of staff have often devoted themselves to the BBC, rising through its ranks. "This is not about saying they have been sat around twiddling their thumbs," she says. "But some roles you don't need in the restructure. That's incredibly painful for the people who are doing those roles, and it's very hard not to take it personally. I would take it personally if it was me."

Asked if the DG, a former director of news himself, has apologised to his journalists for the pain resulting from a £2bn licence fee shortfall, she says : "No, no, no, no. Mark doesn't do apologies. Mark is very pleased with our plans."

The day before, Boaden had walked into studio N6 at the soon-to-be-sold-off Television Centre and addressed most of her 3,416 staff via a feed, including 40 who were in the studio, giving a heartfelt and detailed account of her vision for how BBC News can emerge as a more responsive and better-focused operation. It was not an easy speech. "The mood was very, very sober," says Boaden. "I said, if your job is at risk, me talking about the future is of absolutely no comfort and that's a fact. Over the coming months, as we go through the process of seeking volunteers and then if we have to move to compulsory redundancies, not something we will rush to at all, it's going to be destabilising for everybody."

But providing as much detail as possible was crucial, she says. "In times of great uncertainty and anxiety people need a hand rail and clarity is a great handrail."

The key to the future of BBC News is to bring disparate groups of journalists closer together, both literally and metaphorically, reducing the risk of duplication of posts and making better use of quality reports, interviews and investigations by ensuring they are made available to television viewers, radio listeners and web-users alike.

Staff from BBC Online will be sat alongside television and radio colleagues in the newsroom in a multi-media approach that has been influenced by developments in the newspaper industry.

"You want radio, television and online to be integrated so that the important people making the big decisions are sitting near each other," says Boaden, who wants the new set up to be in place by next spring. Multimedia "assignment" and "intake" desks, as well as a specialist "world news hub" will be established nearby to ensure that no sector of the BBC audience is short-changed.

Apparently anticipating criticism that this uniformity could undermine the distinctiveness of some of the BBC's news output, the director promises that the service that emerges "is not going to be one horrible, homogenous BBC news blandness". The public, she says, "shouldn't really notice any difference except that the really good stuff we do on radio, telly and online will be easier to get to".

Furthermore, the identities of the BBC's best-known news programmes will not change in the new era, though they will be grouped in a new multimedia

Programmes Department, where flagship shows such as Today, Newsnight, Panorama and PM will work alongside more niche services such as the Asian Network and 1-Xtra news teams, in order to make the best possible use of content.

Above all this will preside a new tsar, the Multimedia Editor, a role which will be filled on a rotating basis by senior executives from the fields of television, radio and the internet, ensuring fair play across all platforms. "There will be no brownie points for anybody who privileges their little patch in an unjustifiable way," warns Boaden, a former controller of Radio 4.

So does this mean that the famous internal jealousies, the sharp elbows at press conferences and competition for scoops between different sectors of BBC News are finally over? "I think there will always be competition within BBC News and some of that is healthy, but some of the internal competition that has dogged the organisation will no doubt be significantly reduced by this change."

Money can be saved by being more selective in which stories are covered. "We are talking about deploying fewer stories. I think there's some middle ranking crime stories that we could do without or think harder about the way we do them."

The decision that Today and Newsnight should suffer cuts so small that Boaden claims audiences will not be able to discern a difference would appear to be a victory for and Jeremy Paxman, who campaigned loudly and publicly on behalf of their respective programmes. Contrary to reports, Boaden says she was not obliged to give the pair a ticking off.

"To be fair to John he was worried about the overall impact on the BBC's journalism – he wasn't making a fuss on his own behalf. I'm glad I've got staff who really care about what we do, the death of the BBC would be when its staff were indifferent about its future. No, I didn't tell them off. It's always uncomfortable those situations and it's not an easy management issue but I think our big presenters care a lot about our organisation. The BBC has debate in its DNA and long may that go on."

Asked to define the level of morale in her department (described by the Bectu union's general secretary Gerry Morrissey last week as at "an all time low"), Boaden says: "It's very difficult for me to know what morale is. If you are the boss people tend to be either unnaturally cheery with you from embarrassment or especially grumpy. I have had both within the last week."

But she acknowledges that it is not just the presenters that care about the strength of the output as well as the security of their jobs. "I was here until mid evening last night, went round several of the programmes, and there was that quite ruminative feel that you get when people have heard some big information and are just taking it all in. People are obviously worried about quality. They care passionately about what they do, they are very proud of what they do, they work incredibly hard and don't want to let their audiences down. At the very least, they know we have a proper thought through plan, even if they don't agree with it. This is not back of a fag packet stuff."

The new set-up, largely devised by Boaden's deputy, Adrian Van-Klaveren, is a necessary response to changing audience behaviour. The director of news herself, a self-confessed "late adopter" of technology, is turning to new media platforms to receive her news. "Two years ago if you had said to me you will use your mobile phone for the news headlines several times a day, I honestly would have laughed at you. I'm not an especially technical person but I use my mobile phone for BBC news headlines all the time," she says.

She has been impressed by BBC research showing that 15 per cent of people have now "given up on television altogether". "They use their computers for all their information. I always think of myself as a late adopter to a lot of this technology. I think that's useful because it reminds those in the organisation that ... people are at really different stages in the technological revolution."

Having been credited with restoring confidence to BBC News in the wake of the Hutton inquiry, Boaden's position in implementing this programme of reform has not been strengthened by apologies she has been obliged to make, most notably to Gordon Brown, for misrepresentation of Newsnight's attempts to secure an interview, and to John Redwood for the inappropriate use of an old clip of the former Welsh Secretary struggling to sing the Welsh national anthem.

"One of the things we've learned in the last few years is that it's much better to be honest in your judgement, defend what you feel is defensible but be open when you have not got it right," she says. "On Gordon Brown, the overall story wasn't altered but undoubtedly we gave people the impression that this was a sequence of events and then we discovered it wasn't. The John Redwood was simply wrong, and we shouldn't have done it."

BBC bulletins also found themselves running with the Crowngate story even after BBC One staff knew it to be wrong. Boaden points out that "we went with the same information as everybody else in the news media" and claims that coverage of the BBC's mishaps has been carried out with "a clear, hard eye".

On the day of the announcement of BBC cuts, the corporation's bulletins gave greater prominence to rival ITV being exposed for deception over phone-in services. The news judgement was "absolutely right", says Boaden, pointing out that millions were duped by ITV. "I made it clear at the beginning of the day that it was not going to be a good day for burying bad news for anybody."

Boaden was "bloody thrilled" when BBC News recently won an Emmy for its coverage of the Lebanon War (though that coverage was overlooked by awards ceremonies in Britain) and, after leading a determined campaign for the release of abducted Gaza correspondent Alan Johnston she cried when he was set free ("and I'm not a weepy person").

She is a strong character and will not shirk from her task, difficult though it might be. "You have to be realistic. The licence fee was a lot less than we'd hoped for and we have tough efficiency targets – though not as tough as some others in the public sector, we should remember," she says. "You get on with the job you've got."

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