Nicholas Jones - Blog and Archive Website

My abiding memory of the former BBC director general John Birt was the day in 1994 when I challenged him over his headlong rush to embrace every new innovation in broadcasting without thinking through the impact this would have on editorial and production values.

Thirteen years later -- with the Corporation facing a £2billion shortfall in the licence fee -- I would mount a similar charge against the management: they have failed to define and defend what is best in the BBC’s journalism.

Throughout my final years as a correspondent I was pulled further and faster in all directions having to satisfy an ever-expanding number of outlets knowing full well that I was sometimes going on air without having made the inquiries I thought were necessary.

There must be something wrong when a government information officer can taunt a BBC political correspondent like myself for commenting live about a newspaper flyer without even having checked the facts first with the relevant department.

Whenever I feared I might have short changed viewers and listeners I thought back to November 1994 when I spent the day at a Birt inspired workshop which followed up his Extending Choice speech.

The finale was an appearance by the dg himself. He emerged from behind a curtain to answer questions. I asked: "Shouldn’t we stop and think and try to strengthen what we do best rather than rush headlong to spread our journalism even thinner?" I was given a withering look and a Birtian reply: The BBC could not stop advancing, if it did, it would die.

While I accept the BBC must change to survive we must not in the process jeopardise the quality of its journalism.

Two years ago, at a conference on market-driven journalism inspired by the friends of Le Monde Diplomatique, I warned that the management seemed to be sleep walking to disaster during the licence fee debate.

Every month there were new reports of job losses but no coherent plan for the staff or any attempt by management to determine the BBC’s priorities in defining and defending public service broadcasting.

All I can do as an ex-correspondent is speak with conviction about my belief that the BBC’s standards do have an impact on other journalists in Britain; they do help moderate the sensationalism of the tabloid press.

Now with a significant shortfall in the licence fee, hard choices may well have to be made. The downside of the recent proliferation in new channels and programmes is diminishing journalistic input and a weakening of editorial values. Where was Birt’s blue skies thinking when it was really needed?

Nicholas Jones was a BBC journalist for 30 years (1972-2002).

(First published Press Gazette 23.1.2007 )