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BBC must do more to improve coverage in devolved regions

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18 August 2016

The BBC must do more to satisfy viewers in Scotland, according to a report by the BBC Trust, and in Wales it needs to find ways to ensure audiences are kept informed about Welsh matters.

The report, BBC Trust's Service review: BBC nations’ news and radio services, examined news and current affairs services on TV and online made in and for Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

It concluded audience expectations of BBC news were extremely high and, while most rated its programming highly, occasionally it fell short of expectations. This was particularly apparent in Scotland.

The main conclusion was: “To improve its services, the Trust recommends the BBC should plan how it can provide more content online, examine how minority language services should evolve, and make meeting audience expectations on news output a specific part of the BBC’s overall annual performance assessment.”

It noted that audiences across all the nations considered the BBC needed to get better at holding decision-makers to account over its news programmes.

On the question of impartiality, which had been a contentious issue during Scotland’s independence referendum, the report noted: “In the consultation, many concerns around BBC impartiality and fairness of its reporting were voiced, but there is clearly no consensus. Criticisms were made that the BBC was pro-nationalist and pro-unionist [while] some respondents praised the BBC for maintaining impartiality across its television output.”

 Wales

The review found that the BBC’s performance in Wales was strong, but it also highlighted that these services faced challenges. It said: “Particularly within the context of a deficit of other sources of Welsh news, the BBC will need to find ways to ensure audiences are kept informed about Welsh matters and that their expectations in areas such as Welsh political coverage and holding decision-makers to account are fully met.”

Like the other nations, younger Welsh audiences were still proving the hardest to reach, with older audiences remaining the main consumers of BBC TV and radio services.

BBC Radio Wales, the only national radio station in the English language, had made various changes to strengthen its portrayal of contemporary Wales, said the report, with greater prominence for journalism and sport and some very popular comedy. The station reached 16 per cent of adults each week in 2015, but its reach was under pressure and has fallen since 2011.

Radio Cymru reached 30 per cent of fluent Welsh speakers, equivalent to 4.6 per cent of all adults in Wales. “While general impressions of quality are strong and average listening hours are high, its reach has declined since 2011,” the Trust said.

In line with trends for BBC TV overall, the reach of BBC Wales’ news and current affairs output fell from 54 per cent in 2011 to 50 per cent in 2015.

John Toner, national organiser Wales, said:

“The NUJ welcomes the conclusion that the BBC must increase its efforts to inform audiences about Welsh matters and political coverage, and that the corporation has a vital role to play in holding decision-makers to account.
“In our Media Manifesto for Wales, the NUJ argued for a  ‘strong publicly-owned, licence-fee-funded BBC and greater oversight and scrutiny of public service broadcasting in Wales by the Welsh Government and Assembly’. We remain adamant that such scrutiny by the democratically-elected Assembly is essential to deliver the service that audiences need.
"The BBC is the only provider of comprehensive Welsh language radio coverage and we would not wish to see it packaged into a minority language ghetto. Welsh is spoken by more than 500,000 people in Wales, largely concentrated in remote areas where people rely on the BBC for much of their coverage of news and current affairs. Any attempt to dilute Welsh language broadcasting will be damaging to the future of the language itself.
"In fact, ant move to dilute news and current affairs coverage on BBC Radio Wales and BBC Radio Cymru would be a retrograde step.
 "We have arranged a meeting with Bethan Jenkins, Chair of the Culture, Welsh Language and Communications Committee, to address these points, among others."

Scotland

The review found that BBC Scotland’s television news performed strongly in terms of reach and quality, with more than half of adults in Scotland watching it each week, eight in 10 agreeing it was informative and seven in 10 saying it was of high quality and relevant to them. But its rating is lower than other parts of the UK and the Trust said: “We heard a very critical opinion from some members of the audience.”

The BBC is planning to pilot Scottish Six, a news programme which will produce extra local news in a package including UK and international news.

The NUJ has blamed BBC management for ignoring surveys showing dissatisfaction and for kicking a popular 2015 business plan for BBC Scotland’s expansion into the long grass.

Paul Holleran, NUJ Scottish organiser, said:

“There is complacency within certain circles of senior management at BBC Scotland that borders on delusional when it comes to recognising the shortcomings of how things are north of the border.
“The recurring theme of minimising survey results has been common for at least seven years now. Results from public and internal surveys which show a lack of satisfaction among those who watch the news and entertainment and those who deliver it have been largely ignored, with little action taken.
“This has been particularly obvious for some time in Scotland, but now even the BBC Trust has recognised it. The independence referendum, among a spate of other major events, required coverage of the highest quality in Scotland. This was a period that followed a war of attrition against staff, with bosses forcing through redundancies which were brought in to Scotland in advance of overall corporation targets set by BBC management.
“Demonstrations outside Pacific Quay, along with non-stop campaigning on social media, highlighted the complaints of a certain section of the public. However, the wider discontent appears to have been missed or minimised until now. The question is: what are they going to do about it?
“An impressive business plan for the expansion of BBC Scotland was submitted in 2015 by a management team set up to turn things around. It was then scandalously kicked into the long grass, with top brass in London blaming the latest politically driven bad licence fee settlement.
“The NUJ campaign supporting the 2015 business plan was backed by cross-party support, and pressure at Holyrood and Westminster has continued. Maybe the joint demands of the unions, politicians and, most importantly, the public will now have the desired effect and persuade director general Tony Hall and his team to throw their weight behind that original plan.
“Maybe they will see that the Scottish public demand more for their licence fees in the shape of more qualitative and quantitative news and current affairs, as well as vastly more localised drama and music devised in Scotland for Scots and for the rest of the world.”

Northern Ireland

The BBC Trust found the BBC’s Northern Ireland news and radio services were performing strongly, underpinned by the huge popularity of BBC Radio Ulster/Foyle, but “some listeners felt that social issues were not covered to the same extent as political ones, and there was an appetite for a wider range of issues which would reflect people’s lives in Northern Ireland today”.

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