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April 17, 2024

MPs accuse BBC of ‘sweeping bad news’ of local radio cuts ‘under the rug’

MPs examining the BBC's Across the UK strategy raised concerns over cuts to dedicated local radio programming.

By Charlotte Tobitt

The BBC has been accused of attempting to sweep “bad news stories under the rug” including its cutbacks to dedicated local radio programming.

MPs sitting on the Public Accounts Committee also said they feared the cuts to local radio could “reduce services for people who are older or less able to access digital online platforms”.

The BBC announced in October 2022 that it planned to cut about 139 jobs in local radio in England as more programmes would be shared between its 39 stations. It said it would instead create 130 digitally-focused roles in local news.

The local radio plans included all stations still having dedicated programming between 6am and 2pm on weekdays. Plans for sharing elsewhere in the schedule were cut back slightly after some opposition but ultimately meant about 20 weekday afternoon (2pm to 6pm) programmes shared between the 39 stations and 18 between 10am and 2pm at weekends.

The plans were originally part of the BBC’s Across the UK plan, launched in March 2021, to shift 400 jobs and £700m in spending outside London.

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However the radio changes were later taken out of Across the UK, the implementation of which is the subject of a new report from the Public Accounts Committee published on Wednesday.

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Sharing concerns about the optics of this decision, the report said the BBC has not provided a complete picture of the progress made in its Across the UK plan and risked causing confusion by not communicating changes within it.

“We are concerned that the BBC is claiming benefits for Across the UK publicly when it is favourable for it to do so for activities that are not part of the programme, compared with dissociating other activities from the programme when they could be seen as a bad news story, such as cuts to local radio.”

Dame Meg Hillier MP, chair of the committee, added: “Parliament and the public must also be fully satisfied that the BBC is not simply cherry-picking examples of success in delivery of Across the UK, while sweeping bad news stories under the rug as not part of the programme, in particular cuts to local radio.”

BBC local radio cuts ‘could disadvantage certain groups’

The MPs also shared concerns about the implementation of the local radio cutbacks, saying it could “disadvantage certain groups”, noting that 80% of BBC local radio listeners are above 55 years old.

“In particular, and although no longer part of Across the UK, we are concerned that the BBC’s reallocation of budgets from local radio to local online services and more sharing of weekday programmes will, in effect, reduce services for people who are older or less able to access digital online platforms,” the report said.

Sian Jones, NUJ broadcast organiser, said: “The NUJ believes the BBC could do much better at being across the UK by restoring live and local output at all 39 local radio stations across England, including live and local news bulletins and genuinely local – rather than shared – programming. The loss of TV output in Oxford and Cambridge has also had a detrimental impact for local audiences in those areas.

“The BBC can be a force for good in covering, representing and lifting up communities across the UK. We recognise the progress made in shifting work outside of London, and the challenges and opportunities that brings, and agree with PAC that the benefits of those moves must be better understood for licence fee payers and audiences.”

Regional news publishers oppose BBC online local news investment

Regional news publishers have shared significant concerns over the BBC moving investment from local radio into digital.

The Across the UK plan also originally included the creation of a network of 100 digital community reporter roles but this was moved into the BBC’s separate local strategy.

In December, editorial leaders from five regional publishers accused the BBC of being the “neighbour from hell”, telling readers it is “splashing your cash on local news websites and making it increasingly difficult for proud, independent news sites to survive in the long term”.

However director of BBC Nations Rhodri Talfan Davies responded that the criticism was “misplaced and misleading” as there is “no evidence” the BBC crowds out other local news providers and Ofcom found it unlikely the plans to expand online would have any “significant adverse impact” on competition.

National World told the Public Accounts Committee the BBC’s local strategy is a “far more serious threat” than the challenges from tech platforms’ changing algorithms “because it is seeking to cherry-pick local stories which drive the biggest audiences and publish them on their own advertisement-free and subscription-free sites which will, because of the consequent high user experience funded by the taxpayer, give them a wholly disproportionate ability to dominate the market”.

The BBC’s plans included launching four new news services online in Bradford, Wolverhampton, Sunderland and Peterborough.

National World’s editorial director in Wolverhampton said there has been a “substantial increase” in BBC content covering the city since the new service launched, usually publishing six to eight articles per day.

They said there have been examples of articles from National World newspaper the Express & Star being picked up “hours later” by the BBC, whose version generally appears first on Google.

“Clearly the timing was hugely frustrating for us, given that it coincided with us launching our reader subscription service,” the editorial boss continued.

“While it is difficult to quantify the impact on subscriptions, there is no question that it makes our task much harder as the BBC is offering high quality editorial, in a premium, ad free environment, without any form of paywall (apart from the licence fee of course).”

The News Media Association, which represents many of the UK’s regional news publishers, noted the BBC’s plans were expected to result in a 77% uplift in its local news output, arguing this “further encroaches into local news from an already damaging baseline” especially as commercial providers are already “grappling with concerns about sustainability”.

Across the UK also included moving 50% of BBC News story teams outside London. For example the climate and science team moved to Cardiff while the technology team went to Glasgow.

The overall aim of the plan was to change the corporation’s culture, reduce regional differences in audience portrayal perceptions and increase the BBC’s regional economic footprint.

However the new report said the BBC does not have clear plans as to how it will measure the impact of its changes.

It also revealed the BBC is behind schedule: the aim was to transfer £87.5m in spending outside London by the end of March 2023, but it had only reached £67.5m.

BBC responds to Across the UK criticism

Thomas Wrathmell, director of Across the UK, said in response to the report:“We have a very clear plan on how we will move investment, programming and decision-making across the UK to get closer to audiences, support the country’s diverse creative sectors, and develop and nurture new talent. Our pioneering programme is deliberately ambitious and has been fully assessed. 

“We are incredibly proud of the progress we’ve made so far and remain focused on achieving our targets to deliver cultural and economic benefits across the UK.

“We are disappointed by some of the commentary in the committee’s report and look forward to addressing the issues raised when we provide our written response. We will continue to provide ongoing updates to the general public and industry stakeholders through the BBC’s Annual Plan and Annual Report.”

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