Open war at the BBC as stars revolt

Some of the country's best-known journalists were in open revolt yesterday over a plan by the BBC director-general, John Birt, to merge news programmes and cut jobs. Paul McCann and Paul Vallely explain why the plan to replace programme editors with five "super editors" might be a reform too far.
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The Independent Online
The BBC was in crisis last night as its senior broadcasters stood nose to nose with John Birt to oppose his plans to merge the production of the Corporation's news programmes.

Anna Ford, John Humphries, James Naughtie, Sue MacGregor, Nick Clarke, Robin Lustig and James Cox circulated a letter of protest about the changes yesterday after being involved in an extraordinary stand-up row in a packed meeting with the head of BBC news programmes, Richard Clemmow.

The letter expresses the broadcasters' "dismay, verging on despair" at the plans and ends: "The changes you have put forward will not work. That is the simple truth."

Also yesterday, the editor of Newsnight, Peter Horrocks, threatened to resign if the changes were implemented. Horrocks, together with Jon Barton, editor of the Today programme, and Kevin Marsh, the editor of The World at One and PM, have all put their jobs on the line by refusing to apply for any of the five new executive-editor posts planned under the new regime.

Production staff on a number of programmes were discussing mass resignations with the intention of transferring as a unit to other networks.

Senior sources believe BBC management has underestimated the strength of feeling. Despite years of restructuring at the corporation this is being seen as a reform too far. Sources said they hoped the heat of the reaction yesterday would encourage management to compromise.

"Editors are very senior people in the BBC," said one highly-placed broadcaster. "They include some of the most calm, sensible and level-headed individuals, but today they are distressed and deeply passionate."

"Birt is determined to replace a BBC of programmes with a BBC of networks," said another. "He is bent on destroying the essence of what has made the BBC great.

"He will obliterate what gives programmes character and individual integrity and replace it with a bland homogenised service of 24-hour news."

The five executive editors will take responsibility for all the BBC's news. These include one who will control the One O'Clock, Six O'Clock and Nine O'Clock News along with the main news bulletins of Radios 4 and 5. Another will look after Today, The World at One, PM on Radio 4 as well as Radio 1's populist Newsbeat. Also planned is an editor for 24-hour "core news" services; separate TV and radio daily current affairs; and daily current affairs planning and commissioning.

A National Union of Journalists meeting was held last night at Broadcasting House and a further meeting is planned for this morning so journalists can organise opposition to the plan.

Pressure mounted on the director-general to compromise when Baroness Williams, the former minister, accused him last night of rushing the changes through to escape the censure of Parliament while it is in recess.

Yesterday morning, a heated meeting took place in the Broadcasting House newsroom when Mr Clemmow, met staff to announce the changes.

Up to 80 reporters, producers and senior editors from radio news gave short shrift to his insistence that the cost-cutting changes were vital if the BBC was to continue to offer distinctive journalism to meet the explosion of broadcast choice from digital TV.

Fuel was added to the row when Mr Clemmow told staff that Mr Birt had requested job cuts of 15 per cent from every news department and Tony Hall, the head of BBC News, offered instead to cut 30 per cent of his staff.

"People were very angry," said one of Radio 4's most senior journalists. "In all my years at the BBC I have never seen anything like it. The journalists made mincemeat of Clemmow and his deputy, Steve Mitchell. By the end of the meeting their entrails were all over the floor."

Television staff heard details of the plan at an afternoon meeting and sources described it as "heated" and "emotional".

Staff are also angry at plans to transfer up to 75 per cent of each news programme's commissioning budget to a new centralised editor.

"This is tractor tyre manufacture in the Soviet Union circa 1934," said one source yesterday. "We are not saying we cannot share resources or cannot have change, but this is classic bloody Birtism. It is a deliberate management policy of getting rid of the identity of the programmes."