BBC foreign news budget 'under pressure'

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The Independent Online

The BBC’s journalists are “running on empty”, their budget for covering foreign news ran out “some time ago” and the corporation’s executives are in talks with other British broadcasters to pool resources on stories in order to save money.

The cash shortage follows an unprecedented run of major and long-running foreign stories stretching back to the Haiti earthquake last year and covering the mining accidents in Chile and New Zealand, the Christchurch earthquake, the uprisings in North Africa, the earthquake and tsunami in Japan and the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan.

But the demand on resources has come at a time when the BBC is in the process of identifying 20 per cent savings across its output. As the BBC’s Director General Mark Thompson today unveils the corporation’s thinking on its spending priorities, there is concern in the newsroom that extra funding must be found to cover the major international stories which have lasting repercussions for the United Kingdom.

“The money that I’ve got is under pressure and ran out some time ago, truthfully. But other people have got deep pockets,” the BBC’s World News Editor Jon Williams told The Independent. “Clearly the money that I get at the start of the financial year is only one piece of a much bigger budget that [BBC] news gets which is one piece of a much bigger budget that the BBC gets.”

The BBC is undergoing the painful procedure of identifying efficiency savings following the recent settlement with the Government that saw the licence fee frozen for the next six years. The BBC’s news room and the unrivalled network of foreign bureaux will be expected to take significant cuts as part of that process.

In its coverage of the Japanese tsunami, the BBC faced criticism for the apparent extravagance of sending London-based presenters – such as Jim Naughtie from Radio 4’s Today and George Alagiah – around the world to Japan when it has a bureau in Tokyo and was able to scramble correspondents from Seoul, Shanghai, Beijing and Bangkok. Naughtie drew angry comments on Twitter after he conducted an interview in Japan with the Japanese ambassador in London.

Williams defended Naughtie as “an important voice” and said that there were longer-term benefits to Alagiah being sent into the field. “I think it makes every story George Alagiah does more authoritative and more credible because people see him as a reporter first and a presenter second.”

Coverage of big international stories such as the Libyan uprising and the Japanese earthquake should be ring fenced as one of the BBC’s fundamental purposes, said Williams. “Even allowing for the savings that are coming up down the line, the BBC is still going to be a fantastically well-resourced organisation and if it can’t spend its money on telling the biggest stories of the moment then we are not doing our job,” he said. “The BBC is a £4 billion a year corporation and how it chooses to spend that £4 billion a year is in the gift of one man. Nobody is going to compromise on the coverage of these stories in order to make sure that one budget line balances against another.”

The current demands on Williams and his team are immense, with the lives of staff genuinely at risk. During the military conflict in Libya, for example, Williams authorised the hiring of a fishing boat which could be used to evacuate the eight-strong BBC team in Benghazi if the city was to find itself cut off by Muammar Gaddafi’s forces.

He has a contingent of 34 BBC staff in Japan who, like the local population, are fearful of radiation levels in the wake of the damage to the Fukushima nuclear plant. “They are quite happy to put up with bullets flying, that’s sort of known territory and goes with the job. The bullets are the known unknowns. [But] radiation is the unknown unknown, and that’s what freaks people out,” he said. “It’s hard enough for the guys in the field doing a story like this without the added complexity of worrying about radiation and the fears coming from their families back home. It’s really tough.”

Although he has no evidence to suggest that the frequency of natural disasters is increasing, Williams acknowledged the extreme demands being placed on BBC resources by world news. “I would be lying to you if I said that people weren’t beginning to tire. People are running on empty,” he said. “You do begin to wonder what next. We are not even through the first three months of this year and it has been a pretty remarkable three months.”

Even before that, back in October after the Chilean mining rescue, he wrote an email to BBC colleagues outlining the money shortage. “The financial situation is serious,” he wrote. “We are currently £67k beyond our agreed overspend of £500k.” He warned that the BBC would have to scale back the deployment of resources at events such as the G20 Summit, the NATO Summit in Lisbon and the Cancun Summit on Climate Change.

Since then he has done his best to keep costs down. “We sent a very small team to the Oscars this year, the smallest I can remember. The EU Summit, a few weeks ago, we didn’t send anybody to - we just did it from the Brussels bureau.”

He has been in discussions with ITN and Sky in order to pool resources on some stories, such as foreign trips by the Prime Minister and other dignitaries. “Are there some stories that we can pool on? We do quite a lot of trips with people and maybe that’s something we should look at - stuff that is non-competitive but expensive.”

Williams argues that the BBC might have to stop covering the “crap stories” or at least the non-essential “nice-to-have” features that will not leave their mark on history. “If people are wasting money covering stories that nobody is interested in then there’s a problem. If people are spending money on the bigger stories of the moment that are going to change the lives of people for years to come then nobody in this organisation would argue that it’s not important.”

For more than a year those big stories have kept coming. The audience may not always appreciate the conditions under which the BBC’s foreign staff operate. In covering the Japanese tsunami, Alastair Leithead and Rachel Harvey, both working in northern Japan, were obliged to queue for hours to obtain fuel that would enable them to drive only as far as the next town. “Just the sheer logistics and sustaining the operation are taking quite a lot of effort,” said Williams.

It is, Williams argued, the BBC’s long-term commitment to foreign news that underpins its authority. It is embodied in the work of John Simpson, who at the age of 66 reported for 18 consecutive days from Benghazi. The World Affairs Editor has used his experience to distinguish between the North African uprisings and those in Eastern Europe in 1989. “He is absolutely peerless because he has been there he has got the T-shirt and is able to draw on that long view of history. There’s nobody else other than John Simpson who is able to do that in British media today.”

But just as important is the infrastructure of international bureaux. “That’s why we are in Cairo, Kabul and Baghdad because we have a commitment to tell these stories through good times and bad,” said Williams, pointing out that no other British broadcasters have offices in these cities or in Tokyo. “When everybody else goes home from Japan the BBC will still be there.” He must hope that his Director General shares that vision.