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Former media and culture committee chair and South east MPs ask broadcasting watchdog to check BBC cuts

10 August 2020

Damian Collins, former chair of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, has sent a letter signed by other MPs in the south, to the broadcasting watchdog over concerns about cuts to regional BBC programming in England.

The letter to Dame Melanie Dawes, chief executive of Ofcom, asks her to make an urgent response to the BBC about its cuts to local and regional news and current affairs before any “irreparable steps are taken” saying she must consider whether the BBC is acting in accordance with its mission and purpose, in light of her comments  made to the cross-party Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee in June.

It says: “Furthermore, we would ask that no action is taken by the BBC to implement these cuts until it can demonstrate to the satisfaction of Ofcom that it has conducted detailed audience research to determine whether or not their policy is supported by viewers and listeners.”

The BBC said it had to make savings of £25m in England by 2022, with 450 jobs to go:

  • 142 jobs will go in online and TV news.
  • 139 jobs will go in local radio and the BBC will continue with the cut-down schedule caused by Covid-19, reducing daytime output from four shows a day to three.
  • 29 jobs will go from the award-winning current affairs Inside Out programmes and the 11 programmes will be replaced by a new current affairs strand produced from six regional hubs in Newcastle, Yorkshire Norwich, Birmingham, London and Bristol.
  • 7 job cuts in the London-based wire service.
  • 125 further voluntary redundancies will be sought.

The MPs said that in their region the 18.30 news, which is consistently the most watched programme on BBC One all day, will have “fewer stories, fewer technical staff, and journalists expected to produce reports on their phones as a matter of course. Our BBC local radio schedules have been reduced, online stories will be produced from London and our successful current affairs programme Inside Out has been cancelled and is no longer being produced in the region”.

The letter in full:

Dear Dame Melanie,
We are writing to you as MPs from the BBC South East region, regarding Ofcom’s responsibility to act on behalf of licence fee payers, by holding the BBC to account for the way in which it fulfils its mission and purposes, as set out in its Royal Charter.

We are concerned about the negative impact to communities of cuts by the BBC to local news reporting. Overall for BBC England, it’s proposed that £25million in cuts to local news will see 450 jobs lost. In our region for example, this will mean the 1830 local TV news, which is consistently the most watched programme on BBC One all day, will have fewer stories, fewer technical staff, and journalists expected to produce reports on their phones as a matter of course. Our BBC local radio schedules have been reduced, online stories will be produced from London and our successful current affairs programme Inside Out has been cancelled and is no longer being produced in the region.

In Ofcom’s most recent annual report of the BBC, published in October 2019, it was stated that, ‘The BBC should better reflect the whole of the UK with authentic news and current affairs content that feels relevant and engaging to all audiences. Our research suggests that audiences want to see more news about their communities, reported by people with a deeper understanding of the area.’ Indeed, in May this year in its response to these specific recommendations the BBC stated in ‘Bringing Us Closer’, its Annual Plan for 2020/21 that, ‘Deepening representation of the whole of the UK is a priority for the BBC.’

Yet the reality is that the reverse is happening. The BBC is cutting back on regional news programmes that viewers value and are amongst the most popular news and current affairs shows that they broadcast. With the BBC needing to make savings, it’s a question of priorities, and local and regional news would appear to be taking a disproportionate share of the cuts being made by the BBC management. When you gave evidence to the House of Commons Select Committee for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport on 23 June 2020, you acknowledged that delivering strong local and regional news coverage was not only a key part of the remit of the BBC, but a major justification for it being publicly funded by the licence fee. In response to question 50, you said, ‘In the end, there will be questions about what the role is for public funding. We have the licence fee at the moment, which is a form of public funding. One of the things that I think is important here…is what needs to be provided through the public purse. For example, last year, with Frances Cairncross’s review into journalism, it was clear that local news is very hard to fund commercially anymore. That is the sort of thinking that needs to be done.’

In the same evidence session, you also said in response to question 71 that if cuts were being made to regional news and current affairs programmes that, ‘we would expect the BBC to be able to demonstrate…that it has done the research into what its users want and need, and that it is acting on the basis of that and not for some other reason.’ You further commented in response to question 72, with regards to the BBC’s regional current affairs coverage, ‘if they are going to remove programmes that are really popular with the viewer…We would not support that unless it took place in the context of the overall offer to the viewer remaining really strong.’ 

Yet, the BBC is cutting back on local and regional news and leaving viewers with an offer that is weaker, rather than ‘remaining really strong.’ 

In light of this, we would ask Ofcom to give an urgent response to the BBC’s  announcement on cuts to local and regional news and current affairs programmes, before any irreparable step is taken by the Corporation. In particular we want to know whether you consider that the BBC is acting in accordance with its mission and purpose, in light of your own comments, and the most recent Ofcom report on the BBC. Furthermore, we would ask that no  action is taken by the BBC to implement these cuts until it can demonstrate to the satisfaction of Ofcom that it has conducted detailed audience research to determine whether or not their policy is supported by viewers and listeners.

We look forward to receiving your response to the points raised in this letter.
Yours sincerely,
Damian Collins, MP for Folkestone and Hythe
Sir Roger Gale, MP for North Thanet Wells
Natalie Elphicke, MP for Dover
Gareth Johnson, MP for Dartford
Damian Green, MP for Ashford
Tom Tugendhat, MP for Tonbridge and Malling
Craig Mackinlay, MP for South Thanet
Helen Whately, MP for Faversham and Mid Kent
Henry Smith, MP for Crawley
Tim Loughton, MP for East Worthing and Shoreham
Tracey Crouch, MP for Chatham and Aylesford
Helen Grant, MP for Maidstone and The Weald
Kelly Tolhurst, MP for Rochester and Strood
Gordon Henderson, MP for Sittingbourne and Sheppey
Rehman Chishti, MP for Gillingham and Rainham
Caroline Ansell, MP for Eastbourne
Andrew Griffith, MP for Arundel and South Downs
Caroline Lucas, MP for Brighton Pavilion
Sally-Ann Hart, MP for Hastings and Rye
Laura Trott, MP for Sevenoaks
Peter Kyle, MP for Hove 

Tags: , bbc, damian collins, ofcom, melanie dawes, cuts, english regions, inside out, current affairs, Digital Culture Media and Sport Committee