LONDON -- The BBC, arguably the world’s greatest broadcast news organization, is in deep trouble. Its boss has resigned after less than two months on the job. Its management is facing a major shakeup. And it is about to be sued as a result of a horribly botched investigative news report on pedophiles.
But the problems of the “Beeb” (as it is fondly known here) are much broader and have deeper roots than the current scandal.
In the years that I have lived in London, I have watched with dismay as the BBC domestic news broadcasts have gone down market, seemingly following in the footsteps of American commercial news broadcasting.
I am not talking about BBC World, BBC America or the BBC World Service radio, which are beamed to the rest of the world. They are still the gold standard of broadcast journalism. It’s the BBC you watch and hear in this country that has gone relentlessly downhill until on some days it is almost indistinguishable from the dumbed down news and infotainment you get in America.
There are days and even weeks of running stories about little white girls missing and feared to have met a terrible fate. Celebrity news is prominently featured, along with a heavy dose of crime stories.
The BBC domestic service seems to be in a race for ratings, and at the same time has been making deep cuts in its news budget. In short, it suffers from some of the ills of American commercial broadcast and cable news, despite the fact that the BBC is handsomely funded by a tax of more than $230 a year paid by every household owning a color TV set.
This guaranteed income helps the BBC resist the sort of government interference with the news that is typical in other countries that have government-owned broadcasters. It also frees it from the need to cheapen and hype the news in an effort to boost ratings and advertising revenue (since there is no advertising on the BBC).
Many of the BBC’s problems are self-inflicted. Instead of cutting the fat from its bloated layers of highly paid management, it has been slashing the budget for the people who actually report and put the news on the air.
The BBC is now paying for these mistakes. Production of the pedophile story that led to the resignation of the director general, George Entwistle, had been outsourced to a private news organization, presumably as a cost saving measure. The result was shoddy journalism.
That was then compounded by the fact that the BBC’s top-heavy layers of management are so dysfunctional that no one informed the director general about a potentially false and explosive story before it was broadcast.
Ironically, the Americanization of the BBC domestic service has been happening at a time when there is at long last an indication that at least one major US broadcaster is returning to its hard news roots and becoming more like the old BBC domestic service.
Since last year when “60 Minutes” executive producer Jeff Fager became chairman of CBS News and Scott Pelley anchor of the Evening News, I have watched it refocus on real news, expanding its coverage and tackling important subjects that American networks had dropped for lighter fare. The changes are incremental. You cannot rebuild a news organization overnight. CBS, the network I once worked for, still has too few experienced foreign correspondents, but the company is clearly headed in the right direction.
So far, there are no signs of change at rivals NBC News and ABC News, but if CBS News can become a more credible and also profitable news organization, the others might be tempted to follow Fager’s example.
Meanwhile, staff morale at CBS News is now sky high – and has hit rock bottom at the Beeb.