BBC director general Tony Hall has told MPs there’s a chance that part of its services could be “out of action” for a spell if the corporation’s newsrooms suffered an outbreak of coronavirus.
Lord Hall said the BBC is “intent on keeping absolutely everything open”.
Asked whether there could be a scaling back of services, he replied: “There could be – I hope there won’t be.”
Executives are “working through how we could cope with” a service being out of action, he added.
He said they are looking at how to ensure “we can keep broadcasting the information that the people need to have”, but that the BBC is “gaming out” what would happen if many staff go sick.
“You could imagine a local station or some other part of our news operation being out of action for a period.”
The outgoing director general told the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport select committee that he would chair another meeting about the issue later on Thursday.
“We have to make sure our news services keep transmitting on television and on radio, and we are making sure we’ve got every eventuality covered,” he said.
“We are gaming out what happens if x% of the staff [caught coronavirus] or what happens if there was a case in one of our stations or newsrooms, what would we do and how we would cope with that?”
Lord Hall added: “At the moment we are intent on keeping absolutely everything open, all our networks going, because we know that globally, nationally and locally, people turn to us for information, as they did during the floods.
“[We want] to make sure we can keep going if for some reason there was illness within a team. We’re not planning on anything other than keeping everything going at the moment, but we need to plot just in case something happens.
“The primary purpose is to keep our services going. If we were hit to a very high degree by sickness then our priority is to make sure we have a service people would turn to, and that that service would keep going.”
The hearing at the House of Commons also covered a wide range of other programmes and issues:
- Radio 4 Today programme – Lord Hall said he was “very pleased that ministers are back” on the programme as the coronavirus outbreak continues, following an apparent informal government boycott.
- Victoria Derbyshire Show – He said the £3m budget for the BBC Two programme, which is being axed, is too much for an audience of 300,000, who are “more male and older than you might think”. But he said he hoped “Victoria herself and the journalism which they do will find a home on the News Channel and elsewhere around the BBC”. However, Derbyshire tweeted that those audience ratings “completely ignored” digital figures for stories that wouldn’t have been commissioned if the TV programme didn’t exist.
- Six Nations – The rights to the rugby tournament are split between the BBC and ITV, and Lord Hall said the corporation was “in the middle of negotiations” about what happens when that deal ends in 2021. “We want to keep those free to air,” he said. “They probably will not be free to air. Frankly we believe they ought to be listed events.”
- Over-75s – BBC director of policy Clare Sumner said older people who will no longer be eligible for free TV licences from June would be dealt with “sympathetically” if they don’t pay. “In the first instance we’re going to have to take the first year to help people [and] support them to pay,” she said. “That is our whole strategy here.”
- BBC News app – “We are going to completely reboot, start again with our BBC News app this year,” the director general said. “That’s our big investment priority. One of the areas is to personalise it.”
- Local radio – The network could be reorganised, Lord Hall said. “We’re looking at ways that we can move some of the pieces to more reflect what we think the important geographies are and communities are, especially those without a voice and those more in the Midlands and the north.”
- BBC Three – Lord Hall didn’t talk about reports that BBC Three could be reinstated as a TV channel, but did say: “What we’re looking at, and the board will be looking at this over the coming weeks, is whether we can divert more resources into BBC Three to build the kind of creative content they’re delivering.”
- News Channel – “I can’t foresee an end to the News Channel, even though people have talked about its demise for a very long time,” Lord Hall said. “I think people want to find out what’s happening live.”
- Equal pay – Asked how many gender pay tribunals the corporation was currently fighting, Lord Hall said there were 11 in the pipeline.
- Star salaries – Lord Hall said transparency over publishing presenters’ pay was right, but added: “We have undoubtedly lost people because their pay has been known to other broadcasters who have used that to take them away from us, and it’s happening reasonably often.”
- Diversity – Every key management group in the BBC will have two additional members as diversity advisors by the end of March “to add actual diversity – BAME or it could be a disability or whatever”, he said.