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NUJ rejects BBC plan to provide 100 local public service reporters as ‘privatisation through stealth’

By William Turvill

The National Union of Journalists has condemned the BBC’s proposal of funding 100 public service reporters as a step towards "privatisation".

The union has also criticised the corporation for failing to meet to diversity commitments and suggested broadcast regulator Ofcom should be able to impose fines when such failures are made. She picked out News HQ, "James Harding's small empire", for criticism.

The idea for 100 public service reporters was put forward by BBC director general Tony Hall as part of licence fee renewal discussions at the beginning of September.

The News Media Association, a representative of the regional and national press, also criticised the scheme, describing it as “expansion… through the back-door”. And several national newspapers also reacted negatively to the plan.

Appearing before the House of Lords Communications Committee yesterday, NUJ general secretary Michelle Stanistreet described the proposal as a step towards “privatisation”.

Asked whether the BBC has an “adverse effect” of local newspapers, Stanistreet said: "No, it's complete cobblers. It's perpetuated by those leading the local and regional newspaper industry who have a vested interest in trying to grab a section of licence fee payers' money that rightly belongs within our public service broadcaster.”

She added that there is “absolutely no evidence” to back this assertion and said local newspaper publishers have “encountered problems because of their own failures of business models”.

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“Now they see that the BBC is ripe for the picking, particularly because the political and ideological circumstances are there for them to be able to achieve that, and they've been going hell for leather to lobby to secure some money from the BBC. So it's of huge concern to us.”

Stanistreet told the committee: "Any attempts to try and grab money from the BBC – to stick into the pockets of the shareholders who run the local press – has to be avoided. And it's kind of outrageous that it's gaining ground as an option.

“And it concerns us because in the dodgy, backdoors dealing that's been going on between the Government and the BBC, we fear that this is one of the provisos that's almost been accepted.

“So Tony Hall's reference – the BBC's reference – to social partnerships as a positive thing in the statements that have been made today in consultation is merely dressing up this creeping mission of privatisation through the backdoor in our mind.

“And if this is allowed to pass – if you have these so-called… 100 local reporters who are going to be invested in by the BBC and the members of the local press will somehow bid for those contracts – then that will be privatisation through stealth. And it will undermine the BBC's ability as a public service broadcaster to do what it does right."

Stanistreet was also asked about diversity at the BBC, which she said had been disproportionately affected by Delivering Quality First cuts.

"The BBC has no shortage of policies and no shortage of statements… and certainly does better than other parts of the industry. That's kind of undeniable,” she said.

"But at the same time as pronouncements have been made and commitments have been made to change for the good, we're seeing the reality of the way in which cuts have been implemented throughout the BBC. And we're seeing – at the same time as the BBC is saying 'we want more black and ethnic minority journalists, we're having these projects to enable more talent to flourish' – we're seeing talented BME journalists losing their jobs and being targeted for redundancy.

“And people who have experienced bullying and harassment at the BBC, because of their race or because of their gender or because of their age. So it needs a more systemic cultural shift, I think, at the BBC to enable that to take place.”

She added: "As a small example of a recent discussion that there's been amongst the trade unions in meetings with the BBC… in a very small department, but it's a significant one because it's the department that runs News – it's James Harding's small empire that runs the top of News, News HQ –  the statistics when we eventually got them demonstrated as a matter of fact that in the course of those cuts taking place all of the BME members of staff had lost their jobs, the disabled members of staff who worked in that department have lost their jobs, and the women who were left were under 40.

"And it demonstrates that forward-thinking doesn't take place in how the implementation of these changes are happening. Because what we've been saying as unions is you have to have an equality assessment project right at the outset so you can make sure that when you're embarking on these cuts… they do have a responsibility to make sure that they are carried out in a way that doesn't undercut other commitments that they've made publicly and to use as licence fee payers and to their own staff."

Stanistreet suggested that Ofcom should have a “beefed up” role in ensuring diversity and suggested the regulator should be able to impose monetary penalties when targets are not met.

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