BBC News LONDON, England — It has skewered royals, asked political leaders the same question a dozen times, occasionally got stories wrong and been accused of a lack of impartiality, but Newsnight now faces a more insidious prospect: death by a thousand cuts.
The long-running flagship BBC news and current affairs programme this week lost its editor, and staff are braced for announcements about deep cuts to its budget next week. Critics argue the cuts will leave Newsnight a shadow of its former self and risk weakening the argument for the licence fee.
On Wednesday, it emerged that Stewart Maclean, the editor, had quit after two years to move to Nairobi as BBC News’s Africa bureau chief, even as Newsnight faces cuts of £5m from its £8m budget.
While the show – whose viewing figures, like those of most news programmes on traditional television, have been falling – is expected to continue, insiders say its format is likely to change drastically. Its team of eight dedicated reporters is likely to be reduced, and reported films may make way for a debate and interview-style programme.
Critics say the move risks narrowing the focus of the BBC’s news output, and that for reporters to be able to pursue stories doggedly over months and years they need the backing of their own editor rather than being placed in a centralised pool.
It could also be damaging to the entire concept of public service broadcasting, argued Roger Bolton, a former BBC executive and the presenter of the podcast RogerBoltonsBeebwatch. “In my view, the BBC is preparing for a future without the licence fee,” he said.
In recent months, the BBC has announced plans to move a variety of successful programmes out of its public service division to BBC Studios, its for-profit arm. In May, it said it was handing over control of Desert Island Discs, Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time and The Life Scientific, in a move likely to generate more money by targeting listeners outside the UK.
“On the one hand, that’s sensible from a business point of view, but on the other it means they’re taking decisions which are in the commercial interest of the BBC but are often not, in my view, in the interest of public service broadcasting,” Bolton said.
Newsnight’s travails come against a backdrop of successive Conservative cuts that have left its funding for UK services 30% lower in real terms than a decade ago. In January last year, the then culture secretary, Nadine Dorries – who barely disguised her dislike for the broadcaster – froze the licence fee at £159 until April 2024, forcing it to make cuts of £285m a year.
The fee will then increase in line with inflation, and the BBC’s royal charter – which sets out the corporation’s mission, purpose and funding model – will be up for renewal at the end of 2027.
At the same time, linear, or traditional, television is in decline, the BBC is pivoting to digital output, and insiders argue the corporation has to redirect its best journalism to the largest possible audience.
The Guardian understands that Maclean, the outgoing Newsnight editor – who said in a note to staff that his move came from a desire to return with his family to Africa and was unrelated to the programme’s uncertain future – had met digital targets, including setting up a successful NHS unit, which resulted in the launch of three hospital inquiries.
Sources inside the BBC said that while staff understood the pressures the corporation was facing, the fate of Newsnight risked having a longer-term impact.
“Every decade or so you have to justify the licence fee – and how do you do that if you’re effectively killing off something that is at the core of public service journalism?” said one source.
Another said there was an understanding in the news division that executives had to “future proof” the organisation, but said there were concerns about where cuts were being made.
“I think there is a fairly widespread view that [Newsnight] does play a really important role, and does stuff that maybe won’t get done elsewhere,” they said. “And it says something about the future direction of news at the BBC if they’re prepared to relinquish it.”
Bolton said that if Newsnight’s journalists were redeployed into a centralised unit, the BBC’s ability to find a diverse range of stories would be diminished. “The danger is, with the best will in the world, the agenda narrows. The paradox is you’re not aware of what you’re losing, because the stories aren’t discovered.”
He said that before taking drastic measures, the BBC should consult the public on what it wanted from its public broadcaster. “Before people are let go and really, I think, disastrous cuts are made, there definitely needs to be some consultation,” he said.
“You can’t blame the BBC for the fix they’re in and you can praise them for the economies of scale they’ve made, but you have to say, at this point, it’s not for you only to decide.”
The BBC declined to comment.