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BBC boss Tim Davie ‘highly empathetic’ to striking staff but says local radio cuts will continue

The director-general said BBC Local had taken less of a budget hit than other parts of the broadcaster.

By Bron Maher

BBC director-general Tim Davie has told MPs he is “highly empathetic” to striking local radio staff but that the reorganisation of BBC Local must continue.

In an appearance before the House of Commons Culture, Media and Sport committee on Tuesday Davie insisted that budgets for BBC Local had taken a proportionally smaller hit than other parts of the corporation.

And asked about whether government figures had complained to him about alleged bias at the BBC, Davie said such feedback was “just the normal cut and thrust of our business”.

[Read more: Hundreds of BBC journalists to strike on Spring Budget day over local radio cuts]

Tim Davie challenged on BBC Local cuts

BBC England announced in October that it would cut a net 48 jobs as it shifted staff allocation away from broadcast and toward digital. Some 139 jobs were set to be cut at radio stations and 131 created, with the replacement roles including new dedicated services in Bradford, Wolverhampton, Sunderland and Peterborough and 11 investigative reporting teams. Some 40 further roles were to be cut with the cancellation of regional television programme We Are England, and the BBC’s 39 local radio stations in England are set to begin sharing far more programming.

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Davie said of the “painful choice” to share programmes across stations in the afternoon that “you can’t avoid that. That is where you cut, and then you are able to invest in digital”.

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The plans have been highly contentious, with BBC NUJ staff striking on the day of the Spring Budget in March and again last week.

Asked why the BBC was continuing with its planned cuts to local radio despite vocal public and internal opposition, Davie said: “You cannot avoid the fact that the BBC has had 30% of income taken over the last decade and we’ve had to absorb inflation for the last two years.”

He argued the corporation had “actually made a choice to keep more in local than the average [across the BBC] by keeping the [local] budget flat”.

Davie said local BBC radio “​does have a big audience, but it is 13% of the population. An incredibly precious five million people, but it’s 13% of the population, and the linear local radio market has declined about 20% over the last few years.

“So with that in mind, and the fact that audience behaviour is changing rapidly – you don’t have to be a digital evangelist to look at the numbers and see that most 65 to 75-year-olds are getting their news online now – in that context, we believe that reallocating about 10% of our budget… [and] up-weighting the online offer is critical for local democracy.”

[Read more: Tears, fury and thunder – BBC staff reaction to local radio cutbacks]

However Davie claimed to be “highly empathetic” toward striking BBC staff.

“I’ve been through restructures myself and it’s not nice, so I understand it. I am utterly committed to BBC Local growing for the long term, that’s what we’ve got to get done.”

NUJ general secretary Michelle Stanistreet responded to Davie’s comments saying the BBC must pause the cuts.

“Tim Davie has an opportunity to take on board the widespread concerns and criticism of these damaging and unnecessary cuts to BBC Local.

“We’re calling on the BBC to pause and engage with staff and audiences in a meaningful way. BBC Local services are clearly treasured by listeners the length and breadth of the country.”

Complaints from ministers are ‘normal cut and thrust of our business’

In light of recent comments from Culture Secretary Lucy Frazer that the BBC “is, on occasion, biased”, Davie was asked whether he had received that feedback directly from the secretary of state.

Davie said he had not, but that “over time, if you work at the BBC, boy do you get a lot of opinion. There is not a BBC executive or news executive at a senior level who hasn’t been given the benefit of feedback on a regular basis…

“Ministers and other people, in the past, have now and again raised things – ‘are you reporting this issue?’ – but honestly, that is just the normal cut and thrust of how we do our business.”

BBC editorial compliance head David Jordan agreed that the “level of noise” from government was not greater than it had been previously.

“I was running political programmes in the era of Alastair Campbell and New Labour,” Jordan said. “I don’t think anything could get louder than that…

“As the director-general says, there’s always a constant amount of incoming from whatever government or opposition happens to be in government or opposition at the time. That’s part of what you’d expect.”

Davie said: “The noise coming in – if you read the history of the BBC, the noise is constant.”

Davie said something that had changed, however, was a shift in how younger people view news.

“I saw some research that most 16 to 34 [year olds] don’t believe any media is impartial. This is really big for all of us.” 

He added that print and broadcast business models are “under enormous pressure around the world”, making it “perfectly rational – and I’m not being critical – to actually go after a particular audience and become more polarised. That is not what we’re doing as the BBC. And in that choice, sometimes, I think there is more noise.”

He went on to connect this shift to the BBC’s recently-unveiled “BBC Verify” umbrella brand, which encompasses and promotes its various counter-misinformation and open source information teams.

“This is where you see BBC Verify, you see the things we’re doing which actually demonstrate our intent. We’re not perfect – we don’t get it right all the time. But I’m telling you: our intent is good, our newsroom is outstanding, we’re trying to find the facts and present it with due impartiality.

“That, I think, is a changing climatic condition for the BBC that is material.”

[Read more: BBC unveils Verify team of 60 journalists it says will be ‘transparency in action’]

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Select and enter your email address Weekly insight into the big strategic issues affecting the future of the news industry. Essential reading for media leaders every Thursday. Your morning brew of news about the world of news from Press Gazette and elsewhere in the media. Sent at around 10am UK time. Our weekly does of strategic insight about the future of news media aimed at US readers. A fortnightly update from the front-line of news and advertising. Aimed at marketers and those involved in the advertising industry.
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