The BBC has suspended a sweeping reform of its news operations to concentrate on its public broadcasting role during the coronavirus crisis, temporarily saving the jobs of hundreds of journalists.
Director-general Tony Hall said the proposed £40m worth of cuts, which would lead to shows being taken off air and 450 job losses, was to be put on ice.
One senior BBC manager said the corporation “has one priority right now” and “nobody has time or space for consultation meetings or union negotiations”.
The plans to overhaul BBC News radically were unveiled earlier this year as the corporation sought to cut costs and faced political threats to overhaul its £3.7bn funding from a licence fee levied on households. The broadcaster also intended to use the coming months to roll out a programme to start charging the licence fee to those over 75 who were previously exempted.
But coronavirus has thrown both reforms into disarray, with the BBC announcing it would give over-75s another two months before it started sending them bills for the licence fee.
Pressure on the BBC from prime minister Boris Johnson’s administration, which has seen the corporation as anti-Brexit and in need of a shake-up, has also faded, with government figures sensing that the broadcaster would play a crucial role in keeping the public safe in the months ahead.
Downing Street has relaxed a boycott of the Today programme, the BBC’s flagship morning radio show. Today’s key interview slot at 8.10am now regularly features senior members of the government talking about measures to combat coronavirus.
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Lee Cain, Mr Johnson’s communication’s chief, said there was a “turbulent period” ahead for the country and Downing Street would no longer be “restrictive” with access to officials.
“They’ve got other fish to fry right now,” said one BBC executive. “But they can see the ratings and they know they need the BBC to be their key platform.”
The BBC has cleared its radio and TV schedules for government messaging on coronavirus, with the government’s daily briefings aired live on BBC1 and the News channel, as part of special broadcasts each day.
On Monday night, Mr Johnson’s address to the nation announcing the coronavirus lockdown was watched by 27m Britons — one of the most-watched live broadcasts in history — with about 18m people watching on the BBC.
The most high-profile casualty of the restructure proposals was the Victoria Derbyshire daily current affairs television show, which was to be cut from the BBC2 schedule. Staff from the programme have been reassigned on to the news channel in recent days, with host Victoria Derbyshire fronting BBC News shows about coronavirus.
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