The last piece the esteemed journalist Ian Jack wrote before his death was a Guardian feature on the BBC. For him BBC television, radio and the world services “stand as one of the world’s great cultural projects, despite the continual nagging of free-market ideologists and the cost-cutting of spiteful governments”. He concluded his piece, “The BBC celebrated its centenary last Tuesday. Long may it last”.
Nadine Dorries: free-mark ideologist
A few days after Jack wrote this, we saw one of those ‘free-market ideologists’ displaying yet again her views about the BBC and Channel 4. Former culture secretary Nadine Dorries stood in for Piers Morgan for two nights on Talk TV’s Piers Morgan Uncensored. Her first programme, co-presented with Emily Sheffield, was savaged.
One guest was Patrick Barwise, who has written eloquently in defence of the BBC and against Dorries’ policy to privatise Channel 4 in spite of a consultation which produced a massive majority of responses against the proposal.
In the interview, Dorries managed to get Barwise’s name wrong – calling him Richard, which he had to correct – and inflate the BBC licence fee revenue to £36bn which again he had to correct. It’s £3.8bn.
All of this would be good knock-about mockery if the consequences of the policies she pursued in her time as culture secretary had not been so destructive, particularly the decision to freeze the BBC licence fee for two years. The impact of this on the BBC will be a loss of funding of £285mn.
This follows a 30% cut to BBC revenue over the previous ten years.
Cuts to BBC funding and services
The decision was taken back in January but the impact of the freeze is magnified by two factors. The first is inflation, now running at 10% and the other is that the costs of producing television programmes have shot up because of increased demand for programmes from streaming services like Netflix.
The BBC director general, Tim Davie, warned that BBC services and shows would have to be cut as a result of the licence fee freeze.
The scale of the cuts shocked BBC local radio staff, with some taking to social media to express their dismay. But this isn’t the first shake up. The first piece I wrote for Yorkshire Bylines in August 2020 was about BBC plans to cut 450 jobs, which hit BBC local radio stations and television news bulletins in the regions hard.
Some 29 jobs went from the award-winning current affairs Inside Out programmes, and the 11 regional editions of the programme were replaced by a new current affairs strand produced from six regional hubs in Newcastle, Yorkshire, Norwich, Birmingham, London and Bristol. This venture called This Is England flopped and was cancelled earlier this year.
Threat to local radio
Now the BBC says it plans to increase its investment in local current affairs by 40%, creating 71 new journalism roles in 11 investigative reporting teams for England. Their remit would include producing original journalism for TV, radio and online, as well as more than 20 TV documentary programmes per year.
The reaction to these plans has been very critical. Notably, the National Union of Journalist’s (NUJ) broadcasting officer, Paul Siegert, said:
“This is the biggest threat facing local radio since it launched in 1967. The key to its success over the past 50 years has been its localness. When it stops being less local it loses its USP. People in Kent don’t care about what is going on in Sussex. If these proposals are allowed to go ahead it will be the beginning of the end for local radio.
“The NUJ is not opposed to the BBC investing in digital services, but it should not be at the expense of local radio. Over five million people listen to it and many of them pay their licence fee largely because of local radio. Tonight, they have every right to be angry.”
The fact that the cuts came just after Rajar announced that BBC local radio was one of the few areas where there were increases in audience over the summer period – BBC local radio saw its audiences grow 2%, to reach 7.8m listeners – is also embarrassing for the BBC.
Government systematically undermining the BBC
Of course, the usual suspects seized on the news to criticise aspects of the plans. The shift into more online resources was criticised by News Media Association chief executive Owen Meredith who said, “The BBC is already dominant in online news… This move overreaches the BBC’s remit, as set out in the Charter, and threatens rather than complements commercial news publishers’ local offer. If the BBC will not withdraw these plans of their own accord, Ofcom should step in and force them to go back to the drawing board”.
The government’s response to an urgent question by Emma Hardy, MP for Hull West and Settle, on the local radio cuts by the culture minister, Julia Lopez, avoided any recognition that the cuts were due to Tory policies on the BBC since 2010.
It took the shadow culture minister, Barnsley East MP Stephanie Peacock, to remind her, “Under this Government… the BBC has been continually undermined. In an already challenging economic environment, the Government’s looming threat of scrapping the licence fee while providing no alternative model has done nothing but further destabilise the position of the BBC”.
Its’s clear that the BBC in the run-up to Charter renewal needs a licence fee that keeps pace with inflation and enables long-term planning and stability. If Ian Jack’s fervent hope for the BBC’s survival is to be realised then policies which ensure a new BBC, independent from government interference and financial pressures, is at the heart of a new Charter after 2027.