BBC set to pull the plug on Dateline London after 25 years of news debate show

One of the corporation’s longest running and most internationally respected news programmes is to be ditched at the end of the summer

One of the BBC’s longest-running and most internationally respected news programmes, Dateline London, is to be ditched at the end of the summer. The move, confirmed to the show’s producer this weekend, is the first in a series of billed “radical changes” planned by the broadcaster.

To the surprise of the programme’s production team and panel of high-profile contributors, the show will end in September, just as it marks its 25th continuous year on air on the BBC’s News and World channels.

“It’s pretty clear the BBC has decided it wants to make substantial changes to the news channels,” said Nick Guthrie, who has edited the programme since its beginning and who still hopes for a reprieve.

“It’s an iconic brand that offers a unique perspective,” he added. “The show was recently described by [former Democratic presidential candidate] Hillary Clinton as an ‘oasis of sanity in a very troubled world’. And [former BBC Trust chairman] Chris Patten once called it ‘the jewel in the BBC’s crown’. I may be biased, but it would be a tragedy to cancel it now, as audiences cry out for clarity. The contributors have been told it is doomed and are not happy either.”

In response the BBC is promising that Dateline London’s particular mix of comment and expertise, often drawn from outside the corporation’s own staff, will be on offer elsewhere in its television schedules.

The programme, with a global audience of 10-15 million, was initially presented by Charles Wheeler, the late revered foreign correspondent, and was broadcast for 50 minutes on Sunday mornings.

It now fields a range of political and foreign affairs panellists with varying perspectives, including Janet Daley, of the Sunday Telegraph, Bronwen Maddox, of the Institute for Government, Polly Toynbee, of the Guardian, and David Aaronovitch of the Times. Contributors from foreign press organisations regularly include names such as Thomas Kielinger, of the German newspaper Die Welt, and Vincent Magombe, of Africa Inform International.

The loss of Dateline London, which is made for the BBC by Guthrie’s company TV Talk, is an early taste of a programme of cuts that is likely to affect all programming over the next two years.

The BBC’s annual plan, released three weeks ago, laid out a requirement to make an extra £285m in annual savings before 2027. They will come on top of the last round of cuts, to broadcast services, which saw the loss of 500 BBC jobs in news alone.

While the BBC plan warned of the upcoming and necessary “reduction in the content and services”, the decision to axe Dateline London is not regarded internally as part of a cost-cutting drive. News managers described it as part of a “healthy modernisation” of news presentation.

The emphasis will instead be, they say, on providing analysis through fresh formats, including John Simpson’s new chatshow, Unspun World, and The Context, a new programme presented by Christian Fraser. Early positive responses to Simpson’s show have been encouraging, according to news bosses, although Guthrie said he suspects that economies are really behind the changes. He pointed out that when BBC staff interview BBC colleagues, they are not allowed to share their own views.

Dateline London is the only news and current affairs discussion programme on British TV which provides a glimpse of ‘how others see us’,” he said. “Its guests’ opinions are not restricted. If you don’t have that window for informed opinion, comment is left to extremists on other channels and streaming services.”

Guthrie, who joined the BBC in 1968 and left 30 years later, said he has been making the show for £70,000 a year, providing 182 hours of good-value broadcasting over a year. It is presented by News Channel presenters, which this year would include Shaun Ley, Martine Croxall and Geeta Guru-Murthy, and so is cost-effective, he argues.

A BBC spokesperson said that Dateline London has been a “key part of the BBC News Channel schedule, having informed debate and brought context to world events to our viewers for many years”. “But the 24-hour channel, the spokesperson added, constantly reviewed its output: “As the channel’s output has evolved, we now have a number of programmes that offer a similar experience to our audience.”

Guthrie still hopes that when the BBC’s new head of news, Deborah Turness, arrives this summer, she will listen to his plea: “I am asking for a stay of execution and a chance to implement a new version.”


Vanessa Thorpe

The GuardianTramp

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