Regional news coverage suffers as BBC closes most of its district offices
30 March 2017
A survey by the National Union of Journalists has revealed that the BBC has closed more than 20 district offices in the past 10 years leading to many parts of the country receiving an inadequate news service.
The BBC plans to shut most of the remaining district offices as part of a cost-cutting measure. The survey found that once the office is closed, the designated reporter post for that area soon disappears.
Office closures across the length and breadth of England means the nearest BBC reporter to many towns and cities is more than an hour’s drive away, making it impossible for local radio stations and regional television news programmes to offer the level of coverage previous provided. The result is many licence-fee payers are not getting the kind of service from the BBC they expect.
Next month the BBC is due to announce yet another round of cuts with English Regions needing to save £15 million pounds from its budget of £150 million. At the same time the BBC has agreed to give local newspapers £8m to fund so-called local democracy reporters who will cover local councils meetings.
The survey was revealed during a Westminster debate on local news provision, during the NUJ’s Local News Matters Week by Kevin Brennan, Labour shadow culture minister. He said:
“I am pleased to take part in a debate today to mark Local News Matters week. Local and regional news outlets are crucial to keeping our communities informed, engaged, and entertained. Local news is a precious community asset.
"However, as the NUJ’s survey of BBC district office closures shows, the future of local news is uncertain, and we believe that this Tory Government’s media policies are exacerbating the problems they should be trying to solve.
"Therefore, Labour’s frontbench Culture Media and Sport team join the NUJ in calling on the Government to carry out a review of local news and media plurality. Labour will continue to campaign to safeguard our valued local media into the future.”
Seamus Dooley, NUJ acting general secretary, said:
"This survey makes grim reading, but it confirms what our chapels and members on the ground have been warning - the BBC is losing touch with regional audiences. Year-on-year cuts at the BBC have led to many local TV and radio offices closing.
"Reporters are becoming disconnected from local communities. There are huge logistical problems for reporters covering breaking news stories and the loss of regional identity and affinity is also very significant. The BBC has a duty to provide a nationwide news service to a consistent standard. No region or community should be short changed.
"It is ludicrous that at the same time as major savings – with potential job losses – are having to be found in regional TV and radio, the BBC is embarking on an £8m scheme to fund reporters to cover councils in commercially-owned newspapers. In celebrating local news we are celebrating the quality local service provided by the BBC. It has long formed part of the regional landscape and complements other local media.
"Local democracy is enhanced by diverse media outlets and this has been diminished by the diminution of resources.”
Shropshire: the one district office (Telford) closed around five years ago. The staff were absorbed into the general pool of news reporters. Now, with fewer staff there is less content all-round of the county.
Lancashire: there used to be four district studios (with ISDN and a full time reporter) a decade ago. Now there is one studio and only two full-time district reporters (plus two part-time). Burnley studio closed in 2006 and has one reporter who works from home three days a week. Blackpool studio closed 2010 and the BBC has a room in a local charity office and a full-time reporter. there. Preston studio closed 2008, there is one reporter who works full-time from home. Lancaster studio is our only remaining district office. However, there is no permanent reporter, with several working there on a part-time basis. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the loss of a physical presence in parts of our fairly spread-out patch have resulted in coverage of these communities being diminished.
A decade ago at BBC Radio Gloucestershire there were three district reporters. Gloucester & Forest of Dean (the reporter worked from home). Cheltenham & Tewkesbury (the office was at the UCAS building in Cheltenham). Stroud & Cotswolds (the office was at Stroud DC & then in their car). Now they’re all gone and there is one political reporter covering all six constituencies, although the post has been vacant since the end of September. There is still an early reporter out-and-about with the satellite car for the breakfast show and a late reporter covering stories for the next day’s breakfast show, but the idea of a day reporter covering stories for Drive has disappeared.
Radio York has one district office left in Scarborough. The Harrogate office was closed in March 2012. The Northallerton office (also used by BBC Tees) was closed a month earlier. We maintain an ISDN unit for contributors in Malton, in the local council offices and Helmsley in the National Park office. Reporters are no longer assigned districts and work on individual stories set by the news editor apart from our Scarborough, reporter. BBC Oxford –the district in Banbury was lost in 2008, as well as the district reporter, which has meant less coverage in the north of the county. Banbury is about 30 minutes from Oxford. There are no district reporters and it makes it a challenge to ensure the coverage is not too Oxford-centric.
Sussex and Surrey have not had a district reporter for well over a decade.
At BBC Essex the Southend and the Colchester office was closed some years ago.
The Newcastle, Durham and Sunderland offices closed in 2011. Durham closed because the council wanted its office back and then the reporter worked from home, as did the Sunderland/Wearside reporter. When the Durham reporter retired in 2013, the post lapsed.
Suffolk, the Bury reporter was lost a couple of years ago and now works for online local live. The Lowestoft reporter now works from home.
In Norfolk, the Great Yarmouth office is in process of closing and the reporter will be moved to Norwich and work from their car or Norwich (a two-hour round trip)
In Cumbria, Barrow has one full-time and one part-time reporter (two days a week). In its heyday, many years ago, staff included a receptionist, producers, presenters, reporters etc. The office door is now locked unless guests are expected. Whitehaven office is closing, with a microphone point being installed in another building, but there has been no reporter there for several years. It is a huge news patch and includes the Sellafield nuclear plant and a lot of other industry in the area. Reporters are now sent out from Carlisle to cover west Cumbria stories. I is an hour’s drive from Carlisle to Whitehaven and parts of the patch are even further away (Barrow is 1 ¾ hours away).
Humberside two district reporters, one for NE Linconshire, based out of the soon-to-be-closed Grimsby studio (cost £1.5m – 15 years ago). It will soon move to new smaller premises in Grimsby College. The Bridlington reporter lost his base and works on the road covering East Yorkshire. There was also once a Scunthorpe studio and a reporter, both have gone a long time ago.
BBC Radio Solent used to have a full-time reporter on the Isle of Wight a decade ago and the Bournemouth and Poole reporters were lost last year.
The survey was compiled as part of the NUJ’s Local News Matters Week which aims to reclaim a vital, vigorous press at the heart of the community it serves and to build a campaign with the public to promote the role local news plays in democracy and holding power to account.
Local newspapers, websites and associated apps are read by 40 million people a week and enjoy a high level of trust from their readers. According to the Press Gazette, there has been a net loss of almost 200 newspapers since 2005 and the number of journalists working on remaining titles has more than halved. Numerous daily titles have gone to weekly publication and many weekly titles no longer have dedicated editorial teams. This survey shows that the BBC is not able to fill in these gaps in terms of reporters on the ground within their communities.