November 30, 2023 - 4:45pm

Yesterday, the BBC announced its 43-year-old flagship current affairs programme Newsnight would halve its budget, halve its staff, drop its investigations and focus on “studio-based debates”. The decision had been in the running for years, with declining television audiences and a licence fee freeze forcing cuts. The widespread eulogising, however, pointed to a more symbolic marker beyond the sobering economic reality of news journalism. This was the end of an era, not just for Newsnight, but one too for the BBC. 

Accompanying this latest radical restructuring was a more foreboding announcement. Resources from the programme, alongside other cuts across BBC News will now be directed towards new “digital roles”, with the “BBC Verify” team set to expand its capacity and influence.

Since being established in May the unit dedicated to “pulling back the curtains” to create “radical transparency” has courted controversy. Its launch was followed up by widely criticised research fronted by the unit that claimed a quarter of the British public “believed Covid was a hoax”, leading it to stoke panic about the threat of violence from such a sentiment. Despite promising to authoritatively fact-check its content as means to restore trust, many have questioned why its work did not prevent the BBC from prematurely reporting on the Al-Ahli Hospital explosion. 

Unsurprisingly, insiders have expressed frustration with its positioning as the new face of BBC News, given it appears to do little other than dress up the basic foundations of journalism as part of some arcane process of “verifying”. As one frustrated Newsnighter I spoke to put it: “The skillset of the members of the verify team are what you need in any news operation,” pointing to a wider internal sentiment that the operation was little other than a marketing ploy.

This pivot towards BBC Verify and a digital-first strategy also reflects a deeper sea change across the world of mainstream journalism. News executives have sought to blame the rise of apathy and mistrust in their journalism on the scourge of fake news and disinformation on social media platforms. BBC News Chief Executive Deborah Turness described this threat combined with AI as terrifying,while summits on its danger have become a fixture for the professional development of mainstream journalists. Such a change in reporting priorities is also found in the latest generation entering the profession, with a recent survey of Zoomer journalists placing “tackling disinformation” above “holding government and institutions accountable”.

It’s hard not to see BBC Verify’s marketed focus on disinformation and performative “fact checks” as a futile effort to restore trust. Newsnight, that old symbol of broadcasting prestige that built trust on the authority of its analysis and investigative reporting, casts a long shadow over this newfound purpose. With its resources increasingly directed towards the noise and trends of digital media and accompanying “disinformation”, the old reporting model of the BBC threatens to be inverted entirely. 

The corporation now risks becoming defined less by old edict to educate and inform, but instead a moralistic crusade to check the perceived misjudgements of its audience. 

Fred Skulthorp is a writer living in England. His Substack is Bad Apocalypse