BBC’s grip on news programming shaky as commercial outlets pick off journalists

Broadcaster struggling to retain talent when big pay rises and faster career progression are on offer

When asked why Emily Maitlis and Jon Sopel had quit the BBC to host a new podcast for LBC owner Global Radio, one BBC employee who has worked with them responded: “How would you like more money and more freedom, all without the Daily Mail criticising you every day?”

As the corporation prepares to celebrate its 100th anniversary later this year, its position as the dominant broadcaster in British political news and debate programming is starting to look shaky. Although the total audience for its radio and television channels and website remains far ahead of the competition, it is being chipped away around the edges.

Perhaps most crucially, the current media industry is increasingly built around securing big-name on-air talent who have their own loyal audiences – and the BBC is struggling to retain some of its biggest names, with the likes of Andrew Marr also leaving the corporation in search of fresh challenges.

Two big factors have changed the market for news programming. First, the rise of political debate podcasts and online video means the BBC’s in-built advantage of controlling the most popular radio and television channels is no longer the same guarantee of success.

While Radio 4 retains an enormous audience – a fifth of the country tunes in every week – BBC radio has an ageing audience. Listeners, especially younger ones, are more likely to listen to podcasts or stream radio online, making it easier for them to try new outlets – with LBC among the first to spot the opportunity to build a new audience for talk radio.

Second, commercial media businesses are investing heavily at the same time that the BBC is making seemingly endless financial cuts due to government-imposed licence fee freezes. Combined with an industry-wide skills shortage, this has made it easy for commercial outlets to pick off experienced BBC journalists who can put together shows that appeal to the high-end wealthy listeners beloved by advertisers.

One person who recently left the BBC said they were regularly in touch with colleagues who are interested in joining the commercial sector: “There aren’t enough good people out there for the amount of work there is. No boring BBC meetings, flexible working, [it’s a] no-brainer.”

BBC staff can get substantial pay rises and faster career progression by applying for jobs at the likes of Rupert Murdoch’s TimesRadio or the forthcoming Piers Morgan-fronted talkTV. Commercial radio is also less concerned by impartiality – which led to Maitlis being ticked off repeatedly by the BBC over her social media posts. And it allows its presenters to earn big money on the corporate speaking circuit without forcing them to publish their outside earnings.

There is also a sense among some of the staff on the BBC’s leading podcast that the corporation still struggles to prioritise investment in its digital output over broadcast channels. BBC Sounds, the hub for all of the corporation’s audio content, has had a bumpy ride, with its dedicated podcast commissioning team largely disbanded in an internal power struggle with Radio 4 and 5Live. Damningly, the media regulator, Ofcom, recently concluded that, rather than the BBC dominating the digital audio market, there was strong evidence “that commercial radio has been more successful at attracting online listeners than BBC Sounds”.

Yet while Maitlis and Sopel’s move grabbed the headlines, the departure that caused most concern among staff in the BBC newsroom this week was that of Debbie Ramsay, the corporation’s most senior black news executive, who announced she was quitting to join Channel 4. Younger members of the BBC newsroom who had looked up to her as a role model were particularly upset by her decision to quit – and pointed to it as another example of the corporation’s struggle to retain senior staff from diverse backgrounds.


Jim Waterson Media editor

The GuardianTramp

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