MPs have urged the BBC not to cut its local political and current affairs programming, saying its “regional strength” should in fact be strengthened to distil the effect of a “London-centric” media.
Cross-party politicians from across the UK last night backed more than 100 celebrities and journalists, including Lenny Henry and Stephen Fry, who urged the BBC not to axe Inside Out and Politics England.
BBC England’s regional output is under review as the corporation looks to plug a £125m hole in its finances caused by Covid-19.
Corporation staff were today told of cuts in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales of around 60, 40 and 60 jobs respectively owing to “unprecedented financial pressures” and “ongoing financial challenges compounded by the effects of Covid-19”.
The National Union of Journalists said that although numbers for England are not yet known, it expects them to be “substantial”.
It said that the BBC’s Nations and Regions divisions have been set cost-saving targets in total of £24.1m in 2021 and £27.8m the year after.
Filming for Inside Out, which has 11 regional variants, is currently on hold and insiders fear it may not return at all, putting 30 jobs at risk.
Regional Sunday Politics programmes have all been amalgamated into Politics England during the Covid-19 crisis.
In last night’s Commons debate, DUP MP Jim Shannon suggested the BBC should instead “look at renegotiating contracts with some of its higher paid broadcasting staff as well as its directors”.
He suggested this would “easily pay for regional programming” and still allow it to cut its cloth.
Tory MP Steve Brine made a similar point: “There are presenters on the BBC’s Newsnight who earn more than the entire BBC South politics team put together, but the show they put out in our patch achieves a bigger audience than Andy Marr.”
Former BBC journalist Simon Jupp, who represents East Devon, also urged the axe to fall “somewhere else in the BBC”.
He said: “…without the BBC providing real investigative journalism, journalism in our region will be eroded greatly.”
Antidote to ‘London-centric’ media
Several MPs criticised the “London-centric” nature of the BBC’s output and of the media more generally, saying this made the need for programmes like Inside Out and Sunday Politics even stronger.
Sir Robert Syms said that the London-centric media “does not always pick up what is going on out and about in the country” while Neil Parish linked this to the Brexit referendum result of four years ago.
“Without being too controversial and repeating the debate we had for three years over Brexit, it could be argued that the BBC and the media generally were very London-centric, and that is why the result was different from the one expected here in London,” he said.
Parish added: “We are, by our very nature in this country, London-centric, for obvious reasons to do with Government and so on.
“Therefore, in order to try to dissipate that across the whole country, we need the regional strength of the BBC.”
More investment needed, not less
Several MPs said it was clear the BBC’s regional output in fact needed to be strengthened and not cut away, especially during the current pandemic.
Brine said: “In the digital age we should be able to achieve more local television broadcasting, because, with the greatest respect to what goes on in East Sussex, it is not of huge interest to my constituents in Winchester and Hampshire.
“We should really be seeing investment in localised broadcasting by the BBC, not disinvestment.”
Parish said England is “clearly too large” for a centralised programme especially with increasing devolution to local authorities.
He added: “The message we need to send to the BBC is that we not only want the regional BBC to be saved—we want it to be broadened and made even more local in this digital age.”
Jerome Mayhew said the current pandemic is a “particularly bad time” to make regional cuts.
“Our response to Covid has, in large part, been led by our county councils and second-tier councils, as well as by local resilience forums,” he said.
“Those bodies are increasingly powerful, and increasingly relevant to our constituents and the population of the regions. Now, more than ever, the BBC should be focusing on that issue, and not withdrawing from it.”
Agreeing, Mark Harper said: “When the inevitable outbreaks of coronavirus happen, it will also be really important to have quality journalism to report on what has happened in a non-sensationalist, factual way, so that local people know what is going on, what the facts are, what is being done to keep them safe and what they need to do to keep themselves and their communities safe.
“If we were to get rid of that local reporting and accountability, the country and our communities would be the poorer for it.”
Wrapping up the debate, Culture Minister John Whittingdale said he hoped the BBC would take notice of what had been said and continue and “indeed strengthen” its regional political coverage.
“It is not for me to tell the BBC how it should deliver the public purposes or use the money given to it through the licence fee, but I believe that regional news and current affairs are of great importance, because they are vital for our democracy, they help to train future journalists and they help the BBC and other public service broadcasters to remain relevant in this changing media landscape,” he said.
According to Labour’s Liz Twist, BBC public affairs and communications manager Caroline Cummins wrote to MPs pointing to the corporation’s plan to have two-thirds of its staff in the regions by 2027.
But Twist said: “None of us would disagree with that ambition, but we do not just need staff in the regions covering national issues; we need regional staff covering regional issues, ensuring that they get the coverage they deserve. So that answer simply does not wash.”
And NUJ national broadcasting organiser Paul Siegert said today the BBC’s aim to get out of London and better reflect the make up of the UK will be “far harder” to do with the proposed cuts.
“It will also mean less scrutiny and holding to account of local politicians and decision makers,” he said.
“If the BBC shrinks and reduces news coverage in these areas there is no one else that will be able to step in and fill the void left behind.”
A BBC spokesperson said: “Local and regional broadcasting is in the BBC’s DNA and we’re especially proud of how our services have performed in recent months.
“The pandemic has forced us to prioritise our resources so we’ve made short-term changes to Inside Out and our political programmes for England.
“The BBC does face very real financial challenges so naturally we are looking at what savings might be possible but we absolutely recognise the importance and value of our services for English audiences.”
Picture: Reuters/Neil Hall