While Martha Kearney and Sir Michael Lyons of the BBC trust chat about BBC management job cuts, it’s worth pondering the fact that stringers working in Africa for the BBC have, in the last few weeks, discovered to their surprise that they will no longer be paid the annual retainers that some of them were fortunate enough to receive. One stringer let me know that she/he no longer had any money for health insurance after the three-figure retainer was stopped. This stringer said, in so many words, that the problem with this is that it encourages bad journalism (at best) because there are always people willing to slip you a brown envelope to ensure you keep your mouth shut and don’t report some unwanted truth. Indeed it does. But it’s not simply that. These stringers are freelancers who don’t get a pension or any other Beeb benefits, and they are journalists who, anyway, are finding it harder and harder to sell stories to the wretched BBC because the cutbacks on programmes have been so severe in the last few years that often the editors can’t afford to cover more than the most basic stories. Here’s a perfect example of how cash ruins editorial judgement. In Africa this means that you might get regular reports broadcast if you work in Nigeria, Kenya, South Africa or Ghana, for example, but if you work in Gabon, Congo-Brazzaville, Angola or, say, Guinea Bissau, you might sell a story a week for 50 quid a time. Sir Michael Lyons told Martha Kearney that people don’t work at the BBC “for money”. He was, I think, trying to point out that the big managers get paid far too much. Many are on six-figure salaries, with Mark Thompson earning some 800,000 plus quid a year. While I welcome Sir Lyons’ desire to criticise these obese cats, he ought to ponder his words harder. Many journalists work at the BBC not simply for the privilege, as the managers like to tell themselves, but because they believe in truth and journalism and because they need to eat and home, clothe, shelter their families. Many stringers in Africa have left the Beeb because they are sick of being treated like kiddies who are patted on the head and because the stresses and strains of risking your life reporting in, say, The Gambia*, are simply not worth the minimal returns from Bush House. However, some of them have also discovered that they can get a higher salary from a local – repeat LOCAL – news organisation. Unfortunately, the managers don’t understand this, or don’t care or don’t believe Africans need to earn money because . . . because . . . (because they are racist?) or some other pyschological problem I’ve never quite managed to fathom.
* President Yaya Jammeh is competing with President Robert Mugabe, for sure, in nastiness. But you wouldn’t know it if you listened to the BBC or read our appalling UK newspapers. The BBC itself abandoned one Gambian stringer who Jammeh tried to kill, despite that journalist’s excellent service to the corporation for many long and dangerous years. The BBC’s tactic tends to be: send money for the funeral, turn a blind eye during life.
OK. Rant over.