It featured outgoing BBC director of news and current affairs Fran Unsworth and got a bit 'meta' towards the end when the usefulness (or otherwise) of Newswatch was discussed.
And it got odder still when Fran did what many a BBC editor on Newswatch has done before: She didn't answer Samira's question about editors avoiding the programme when big stories break and then asserted "we have the most robust complaints process as well".
Samira Ahmed: Hello and welcome to Newswatch with me, Samira Ahmed. Not for the first time, the BBC's political coverage comes under fire for an alleged lack of balance. We asked Fran Unsworth, soon to leave the corporation after four years leading its news division, about impartiality, accountability and making the most of a shrinking budget. It's been a significant week for a BBC, with Monday's announcement from Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries that the licence fee would be frozen for the next two years. BBC chairman Richard Sharp reacted like this:
Richard Sharp: What it means for the BBC is with less money in real terms we are going to have to address how we do what we do differently. and there will have to be changes and consequences. If you diminish capital resources, there are going to be effects. Now, the BBC has already had ten years of real reduction by about 30%.
The news department has not been exempt from those cuts with an £80 million savings target to be met by this year. And that's meant job losses in areas such as political and business news. Some viewers have been detecting an effect on the output over recent months, with Hannah Fearn tweeting:
Hannah Fearn: Well, what do you know. Turns out journalists do a really important job and can't just be slashed without impact on quality and breadth.
Well, let's talk to Fran Unsworth, who first joined the BBC in 1980, starting in local radio, but who rose to become its director of news and current affairs and she retires next week. Thank you, Fran, for coming on Newswatch.
Fran Unsworth: It's a pleasure.
Samira Ahmed: Would you say you're leaving BBC News in a better place than it was when you first started working here?
Fran Unsworth: Well, it's a very different place than when I first started working here because, of course, we do so much more output. So, when I joined BBC News, it was just radio and television. And now, there is the website, there's social, there's the app, there is continuous news TV, radio continuous news, so there's a lot more of it.
Samira Ahmed: So, is that better or worse?
Fran Unsworth: It's better in that I think we are responding to what people want and how they live their lives and how they don't want to just kind of make an appointment to see news or to listen to news. They need it there, instantly so it's better in that respect. Is the quality of what we do worse or better? I think the quality of what we do is actually incredibly good.
Samira Ahmed: You mentioned quality but, as you've heard, some people think there has been a loss of quality because of the cuts that you've had to make of the past few years. Recently, the BBC admitted it had been a mistake to interview the lawyer Alan Dershowitz after Ghislaine Maxwell's conviction. Do you accept that with fewer experienced journalists in the newsroom, mistakes like that are going to happen more?
Fran Unsworth: Well, mistakes do happen - I'm not going to deny that - but I think in that particular case, it was less to do with cuts, to be honest, and more to do with Covid! It was also 28 December, it was night. I think the teams, actually, are quite thinned out, there's no doubt about it, but that's not because of cuts so much as because of where we are between Christmas and new year.
Samira Ahmed: Really? People thought you should have just Googled Alan Dershowitz, you'd have known you shouldn't be putting him on air in that context.
Fran Unsworth: Well, possibly - actually, I think there was - I think the teams now know that actually, they could have avoided it by doing some kind of more considered handovers to each other on it. But - and we admitted it was a mistake and dealt with it. Mistakes happen - they do - but I don't necessarily think there are any more of them now than when I joined the BBC nearly 40 years ago - or if there are, it's probably a factor of having so much more output.
Samira Ahmed: After this week's announcement on the licence fee, BBC News is going to have to make more cuts, it's a tough time. Is it time to just cut a whole programme or a service like say, Newsnight?
Fran Unsworth: Well, it might be something we would want to look at. but obviously we are in the early stages of what this licence fee settlement means. We have planned quite carefully over the past few years. As you've alluded, in news, part of our modernising news plan was - it wasn't just about taking money out, it was in order to us to shape news for the future so that we could have more impact with what we were doing across a greater number of platforms and also put digital at the heart of our commissioning process. Now, it's not for me to second-guess my successor's views about if there are any further cuts expected of the News division, where those might be. I'm sure that she will come in and have a look around and think about it. But where we start from is what are the audiences that we need to serve, and how do we need to serve them?
Samira Ahmed: Let's pause there for a moment, Fran, because since you've been in post, you've faced as busy a news agenda as most journalists can remember. And this week was no exception with the temperature at Westminster raised to fever pitch.
Huw Edwards: Tonight at 10:00, we are live in Downing Street after a day in which Boris Johnson faced a wave of calls for his resignation.Reporter: Is it all over, Prime Minister?
Well, we mentioned on last week's programme complaints that the BBC's coverage of those Downing Street parties has been "excessive" and "biased" against the Prime Minister. And those continued this week, for instance with this phone call:
Woman: I'm ringing to complain about the amount of news on Boris Johnson. It's about time you stopped being judge, jury and executioner. I think as for the BBC being impartial, I most certainly don't think you are.
As ever, though, others see another side to the story, and Philip Pooley agreed that:
Philip Pooley: So called BBC impartiality is a myth.
But he went on:
Philip Pooley: Any honest assessment of news coverage over the last few years will clearly show a bias against the Labour Party and pro-government reporting.
You have been in news for a very long time so complaints like that - one side and then the other side - won't come as a surprise, but does it feel to you like the polarisation of political views has become kind of nastier?
Fran Unsworth: Um, it's a really interesting question, whether it's become nastier. It certainly feels more polarised, yes. And it certainly feels as though people kind of want to default a bit to their own echo chambers sometimes. And if they don't see the views that they agree with reflected then I do think they perceive us as being biased. But, you know, our job is to hold a national conversation. Our job is to show people that there is a whole range of views on every subject. I don't subscribe to the view that just because we are getting hammered by both sides - one set of the audience sees us as biased and the other from another political perspective sees us as biased too - we must be getting it right. I don't buy into that idea. But I do think that the whole nature of discourse has been quite impacted by social media, for instance. It's become pretty robust. It's become quite difficult, well, very difficult for some of our journalists, in fact, who are repeatedly subjected to online abuse of the most horrible, vicious nature, quite often. Misogynistic. And I could - Laura Kuenssberg, Marianna Spring - and I think that's what I have seen change over the course of my career.
Samira Ahmed: It's interesting you say that, because we do get complaints from viewers that they feel BBC political journalists are often putting a personal spin on stories, and I wonder if that compromises the BBC's commitment to impartiality.
Fran Unsworth: Yes, it would do, and that's why we brought out social media guidelines, to remind our staff that we need to be cautious in the social media space about your insertion of your own political views and political opinions. Because if we are not impartial, there is no point to us. We can't charge a licence fee off everybody in the UK if we are not impartial. And it's beholden on all of our staff to remember that and to act accordingly in that way.
Samira Ahmed: Stay with us again, Fran. We want to talk about another of the principles behind BBC News, which is accountability. And we want to talk in fact a little bit about Newswatch itself. This programme started in 2004 after the Hutton Inquiry which strongly criticised the BBC over its coverage of the lead up to the Iraq War and the death of the government scientist David Kelly. In response, Newswatch was established as part of an initiative to make BBC News more accountable. But viewers regularly question whether it is truly fulfilling that role. Here's Howard Price:
Howard Price: Does Fran Unsworth think there is enough accountability to licence fee payers, when very often we are told that 'no one was available to come on the programme' or 'a BBC spokesperson (anonymous) has issued this statement' and then a statement is read? Isn't the attitude of the BBC management that 'we are always right' and that 99% of the time they will ignore all criticism?
How would you answer that?
Fran Unsworth: Well, we obviously don't take the view that 99% of the time we're always right. and I will admit that we don't always get everything right. We actually, I think - executives from News do appear on Newswatch quite frequently.
Samira Ahmed: (interrupting) Hmm, not a great hit rate, I would say. We've checked, and on the big stories, you're not coming on.
Fran Unsworth: Well, we normally would give a statement if an executive isn't available. But I would also say it's not the only bit of accountability that the BBC has in place, of course. We have Feedback on radio. And we have the most robust complaints process as well. Which means that anybody can write in a complaint and get an answer to it.
Samira Ahmed: Under your tenure, there's been a number of controversies involving BBC News management, such as the revelations about Martin Bashir and the row over Naga Munchetty's comments on Breakfast about Donald Trump. What's your biggest regret?
Fran Unsworth: Oh... LAUGHS. I've got quite a few, to be honest! Hindsight is a wonderful thing, isn't it? You look back and you say, "Oh, if only I'd taken a slightly different decision there." I'm not going to go into them here, but believe me there are some things I wish I had done differently over the course of my career. It would be arrogant and blind of me not to recognise that.
Samira Ahmed: Fran Unsworth, thank you for coming on Newswatch.
Fran Unsworth: Thank you very much.
END OF TRANSCRIPT
Update: Talking of odd things...
This bit of the programme caught my eye (see transcript above):
I was curious and checked it on Twitter. Unless I'm missing something, rather than reacting to event in recent months, Hannah Fearn tweeted that way back in March 2020:
This leads me to wonder: Rather than Hannah Fearn being a viewer who contacted Newswatch over this, did Newswatch simply come across her tweet on Twitter and NOT realise it was nearly two years old, and then just put it out, without checking? If so, that's very strange behaviour on Newswatch's part.