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BBC partnership or privatisation?

30 March 2017

A BBC insider

It's been painful to watch the impact of cuts at the BBC over the last ten years as they've reduced staffing in local and regional newsrooms to critically-low levels.

The cuts have come in waves, with snappy titles and positive spin.

It's been about "Creative Futures" or "Delivering Quality First" but the reality has been big reductions, at times as much as 20 per cent. Thousands of jobs have been lost and our output has suffered.

Over the same period, the remaining BBC journalists have been forced to endure a decade of below-inflation pay deals, while executive pay has rocketed. This year was no different. Deputy director general, Anne Bulford, said the corporation could only afford 1 per cent, and then gave herself an extra £40,000 per year.

It's a story which will sound familiar to anyone working in the local newspaper industry, where senior executives also cut from the bottom while drawing six and even seven-figure salaries.

As an NUJ branch rep, I also meet people struggling to make a living on their local newspaper, where the hours are long and stress can reach toxic levels. They tell me they're caught in a vicious cycle as their executives try desperately to maintain profits for themselves and their shareholders.

Reporters, sub editors and photographers have faced mass redundancies. The number and quality of stories goes down, and the cover price creeps up.

Readers refuse to pay more for less. Circulations continue to decline, advertising revenue follows the downward path and the next round of cuts is annouced. As the remaining editorial value is stripped away, many titles are forced to go weekly. An increasing number are disappearing altogether.

Instead of learning from the mistakes of the private sector, the BBC intends to follow this example, and actually reward those who are overseeing the catastrophic decline in print.

At the time of writing local BBC journalists are waiting the outcome of a "Local Service Review" which will cut by a further £15m a year.

It'll mean the end of many popular local radio programmes. Others will have to be shared across huge areas where their identity will be lost. BBC regional television news bulletins could be dropped, and lunchtime and evening news programmes could end up being a lot shorter.

We’re told that at least two hundred local BBC journalists will lose their jobs. An announcement is due to be made by June, and they’ll be made unemployed by April.

While this is happening the BBC will be hiring two hundred reporters from the private sector, in a move which will cost licence fee payers £80m over the next ten years.

It's part of a new arrangement between the BBC and the News Media Association (NMA) which represents the highly-paid newspaper executives and proprietors who have been helping to drive their own titles into the ground.

Newspaper groups will bid for BBC funding and the winners will appoint "Local Democracy Reporters" to cover councils and other public bodies. Their material will be made available not just to the BBC, but to all other reputable media outlets, including their own.

There will be conditions, but the fear is the scheme will be wide-open to abuse. There’ll be nothing the BBC can do, for example, if proprietors decide to simply fire a corresponding number of staff once the BBC-funded reporters are in place.

The scheme also poses a threat to jobs at newspapers which aren't involved. Those titles could simply fire their existing council reporter and use the 'free' material instead. One newspaper in Wales has already let their politics reporter go, quoting "new synergies" with the BBC.

Another element of the Local News Partnership will involve the creation of a News Bank, which will make all BBC audio and video available for free for commercial companies to use. There are clear implications for journalists who are currently being paid to make that kind of content for the wider industry.

All of this is being done without approval from the outgoing BBC Trust, the new unitary board or OFCOM, in spite of clear financial and reputational risks for the BBC.

Find out more about the NUJ's local news matters campaign.

Tags: , bbc, broadcasting, local news matters, local news matters week