My time on secondment to the BBC
As I prodded my burrito with a fork, Robert tapped away on his phone, working on a piece he was about to publish on food bank usage. The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) had released the first UK-wide data that morning. I had read the release and, as we talked about the available data sets, Robert said “Really, that’s interesting. Tell me more!”. As we ate he frantically edited the copy…
This was only supposed to be a welcome lunch with Robert Cuffe, the BBC Head of Statistics. But before I had even started I had brought in outside knowledge, which is exactly what the secondment to the BBC was about. I couldn’t wait to start properly if this was how fast things could move.
My role at the BBC
The job involved being the sounding board for anyone in the BBC who needed advice about statistics they wanted to use, as well as letting the relevant teams know of upcoming government statistics. Tasks varied from quality assuring data collected from Freedom of Information (FOI) requests to police forces, to helping shape a piece on food prices in Europe, to gathering data on house prices in Skipton. All in one day. That was the beauty of the job. The variety.
My work at the BBC was a really satisfying mix of statistics, economics and social research on a wide range of subjects. One minute I might be helping BBC Wales design survey questions on the availability of rugby in schools, next I would be urgently searching for data on International Monetary Fund (IMF) growth projections of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) for Robert, and then I would be checking BBC analysis on the government’s Energy Bills Support Scheme for BBC Radio 4’s Money Box. I spent quite a lot of time checking over survey results sent to the BBC from outside. Some surveys were professionally run, while some had incredibly leading questions. In these cases I had to advise teams not to report on them.
The speed of work and presentation of the data was amazing. Each month when the Office for National Statistics (ONS) released their inflation data, the business team and Robert would be in the office before the data was published at 7am. I went in early once to watch their process. The instant ONS published the data, the team put together one line containing the main message and sent it round all the BBC news outlets. By 7.02am that line was being read out on the Today Programme! The team would then put together more detailed lines which were sent round the news outlets by 7.10am. Part of the work of the team was to also explain inflation in simple, plain English to translate what is a complex subject into an easily understandable piece.
Each week I would look forward to watching Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs) and working with the Reality Check team, now BBC Verify, to fact check any figures that were mentioned by the PM, opposition leader, or any other MP in the chamber. One of the team would then write a piece to explain what was said and whether it was fact or fiction. This piece would then be added to the online live feed of PMQs. Frequently, while PMQs was still live, one of the team would send an email to the Number 10 press office asking where the PM got his numbers from.
Long-form audio programmes and longer projects
For two days in June, I worked with Tim Harford and the team who make Radio 4’s More or Less. They worked completely differently to the data and news teams I had been working with. Each team in long-form audio was working on a particular programme and they already had their airtime, so there was no competition for by-lines, or clicks. Their deadlines were fixed, so they knew them in advance, and it was much more relaxed.
It was really enlightening to see the programme being made from start to finish. The team had a long list of possible items to have on the programme, some emailed in by listeners and some that were current news items. On a Monday these would be whittled down to the final few and scripts would be written and rewritten. On the Tuesday all the items would be recorded and listened back to, ready for broadcast on Wednesday morning.
Some projects I was involved in were longer term, not “on-the-day” pieces. The data team would contact ONS or consultants, download large datasets, and sometimes web scrape. These datasets were then analysed and translated into amazing interactive graphics for the piece, transforming very complicated, confusing data into fun, engaging, and easily readable information.
While at the BBC I really appreciated that everyone would quite happily pick up the telephone to contact someone, rather than emailing or messaging. It felt much more human and was, of course, much quicker. I was helping gather some large datasets for one project (which got me an “additional journalism” credit on the BBC website) when Robert asked me to just contact an organisation on the helpline for the data, rather than searching the internet, as it would be quicker. In the words of one of the data team, “the best way to scrape is with a telephone!”.
Visiting the newsroom
Near the end of my three months, Robert was preparing a live television piece for the One O’clock News. I went with him to the news studio for the first time. We went down a winding staircase to three floors below ground. I had no idea that the news was broadcast from that far below the newsroom. In the studio was literally just the newsreader and a man with a headset looking after the technology. No one else! The producers were in another room on the floor above.
On the way to that studio, Robert opened a door to another studio where everything was completely emerald green. The walls, the floor, everything. He said they use a similar studio for Match of the Day in Salford. Computers replace the green backgrounds with the set and whatever the programme needs. So the green-screen studio can host any programme you can imagine with no set changes.
My thoughts about the secondment
As well as the serious work of ensuring that statistics were used correctly in pieces, I got the impression that part of the aim of the secondment scheme was that we were shown round and given a fun time in our three months at the BBC.
For me this included seeing:
- Dan Neidle being interviewed for Newsnight
- Robert Cuffe and Dominic Casciani, the BBC’s home and legal correspondent, taking live questions on Nicky Campbell on Radio 5 Live
- Dominic Casciani being interviewed live on Radio 4’s World at One
It was fascinating to see how programs are put together, and now I always think of that when I’m listening to the radio.
While at the BBC, I re-watched W1A. It made my three months at the BBC hilarious fun. I would walk round the building remembering scenes and giggling to myself. I couldn’t go through the pods without thinking of Hugh Grant. And when BBC Verify was launched in May all I could see was Siobhan Sharpe exclaiming, “Let’s nail this puppy to the floor!”. I even got to have a meeting in Dot Cotton!
Fun aside, it was noticeable how the job of someone in the data team at BBC News differed from the job of a government statistician. In government we carry out in-depth analyses on raw data and publish mandatory, detailed data that is still quite complicated. The data team at BBC News then takes our data from GOV.UK, distils it further, translates any government jargon into everyday language, and makes it engaging. They also pick and choose what they deem newsworthy to report.
My time at the BBC working with Robert felt like a lifetime of jobs all rolled into three months that flashed by in a week. In the Civil Service you concentrate on one small area in one job, but at the BBC I developed a much broader picture of government statistics, as well as data from elsewhere, in a short space of time. You learn how the media sees statistics and how they use them. It’s fascinating, great fun and I would definitely recommend this secondment.
Are you interested in working at the BBC on secondment? Applications for opportunities throughout 2024 are open until Wednesday 11 October 2023. Find out how to apply.