A strike by journalists in protest at proposed changes to the BBC pension scheme is set to cripple the Corporation's news programming today with shows including Radio 4's Today and BBC2's Newsnight taken off the air.
Huw Edwards, George Alagiah and Fiona Bruce are among high-profile presenters expected to join the action, which has been called by the National Union of Journalists.
The two-day strike was due to begin with a mass walk-out by night shift journalists at midnight. Picket lines will be set up outside Bush House, the headquarters of the World Service in London, Broadcasting House and TV Centre as well as at BBC regional newsrooms. Protests will also be staged outside BBC news bureaux in the Afghan capital Kabul, Istanbul, Washington, Los Angeles, Paris and Rome.
The strike will severely hamper the BBC's coverage of major stories. Jeremy Dear, NUJ general secretary, anticipated that 85 per cent of the BBC's 5,000 journalists would back the strike. "The BBC will be a shadow of its former self," he said last night.
Other programmes not expected to be broadcast include Radio 4's The World at One and From Our Own Correspondent. Radio 5 Live is attempting to find replacement programming for its breakfast show, presented by Nicky Campbell and Shelagh Fogarty, who are expected to join the strike. BBC sources admitted last night that BBC1's Breakfast programme was unlikely to be broadcast. The BBC News channel would produce some bulletins and fill its schedule with content from the international network BBC World.
Yesterday some of the Corporation's executives were collating pre-recorded material to replace the shortage in live broadcasts until Sunday. The NUJ claimed that no stories on the BBC's news diary for Saturday had been assigned a correspondent because it was unclear who would be available for work.
Mark Thompson, BBC director general, issued an email to staff in which he expressed bemusement at the NUJ's action. "Strikes aren't going to reduce the pension deficit or make the need for radical pension reform go away," he wrote. "The BBC belongs to the British public and has a duty to deliver programmes and services of the highest quality to them every day of the year."
Members of the broadcast union Bectu voted last month not to strike following a revised pension offer from the BBC, which faces a pensions deficit of between £1bn and £2bn.
The NUJ released contents of an email written by BBC head of news Helen Boaden in which she told a BBC journalist that the Corporation should have worked with BBC Trustees "to come up with a viable, long-term plan" for addressing the pension deficit.
The union said that if the BBC suspended its planned reforms until it had fully assessed the scale of the deficit it would call off its strike and further walkouts planned for 15 and 16 November.