Local Democracy Reporters losing out as Newsquest keeps BBC funding as ‘business costs’

  • 01 Aug 2023

FoI findings reveal the publisher is retaining over £10,000 per LDR post.

The National Union of Journalists (NUJ) says publisher Newsquest is failing to provide many of its Local Democracy Reporter Reporters (LDRs) with a liveable wage – while keeping back thousands of pounds provided from the BBC-funded scheme for itself as amorphous “business costs.”

In April, the company imposed a 1.5 per cent pay increase to its LDRs using only the annual uplift in funding provided to it by the BBC. But Newsquest has refused to recognise the dire financial situation of its journalists by passing on any more of what the NUJ says is surplus money tied to each role.

Experienced, senior qualified regional LDRs have often been left struggling on the bare minimum of £24,000 as double-digit inflation has undermined their living standards.

NUJ calculations, based on figures provided by the BBC to a Freedom of Information request seen by the union, show that there is more than £10,000 between the funding the company receives from the BBC per regional LDR role, and the cost incurred by the host employing company from wages and employer contributions for National Insurance and pensions.

The union acknowledges that employers also have to meet other expenses incurred by their LDRs over the length of the three-year fixed contracts, including the provision of kit such as laptops and phones. However, the BBC states in the FOI that “where a supplier’s annual LDR employment costs are less than the agreed funding, the difference is retained by the Supplier”.

The NUJ believes that in Newsquest’s case, where often only the minimum salary is paid, only very limited additional expenses are incurred and therefore LDR roles become a lucrative income earner with a large part of the £10,000+ “headroom” between normal employment costs and the funding provided, being kept.

The Newsquest LDR NUJ chapel submitted a claim for a £26,000 minimum salary, or six per cent increase, whichever was the greater in November last year. This was consistently rejected by Newsquest with only the obligatory 1.5 per cent increase (£558) being passed on from the BBC. Attempts to broker a fairer pay settlement through talks with ACAS at the end of June foundered with no further improvement tabled by bosses.

A few of Newsquest’s 29-strong team of LDRs are on more than the minimum £24,000 salary. But NUJ inquiries show that this is usually because individuals have TUPE transferred into the business from elsewhere as part of the three-year retendering process where their terms are legally protected, or are agreed internal moves for more senior journalists on already higher pay.

However, the NUJ is aware of LDRs forced to consider second jobs to bolster their income because of the low pay and rising living costs. High inflation and steep increases in food, energy and fuel bills has meant Newsquest’s failure to offer a decent increase this year has been felt acutely by staff.

Chris Morley, NUJ Northern & Midlands senior organiser, said that when challenged on the “headroom” available between usual employments costs and the current annual BBC funding of £37,734, Newsquest had claimed of the extra £10,000+ was taken up by other internal business costs – even when the LDRs were working fully remotely from home.

He said that LDRs had been given a 1.5 per cent increase in April but that some found that other newsroom colleagues in the same region as themselves were being offered 4 per cent or more.

Morley said:

“The LDR scheme is a successful one that has done much to maintain a level of local public interest journalism to the great benefit of our democratic structure. While our members are proud of the work they do, it is deeply disappointing that Newsquest conspicuously fails to appreciate its value – or their true worth.

“We accept that the current period of high inflation has shown the funding mechanism and minimum salary set by the BBC has been found wanting, but there can be no excuse for a profitable publisher like Newsquest ignoring the plight of its own employees and squirreling away money that rightfully should be used to bring about a liveable wage.

“Our members are not even asking Newsquest to incur a real cost to employing LDRs – but just to provide a living salary within the overall money it gets from BBC licence fee payers to undertake the service.”

The Newsquest NUJ LDR chapel said:

"At a time when our hard-working members are faced with the biggest cost-of-living crisis in a generation and inflation is through the roof, a 1.5 per cent pay offer is derisory.

“We thank the BBC for the 1.5 per cent annual rise but feel disappointed that Newsquest is unable or unwilling to release more of the money they receive for us directly to the LDRs - especially in these extremely tough financial times.

“Our information shows that the BBC is paying publishers more than £37,000 a year per Local Democracy Reporter. Yet in most cases our members are earning £10,000 less than that, meaning the publishers are seemingly keeping a significant chunk of licence fee payers' cash for themselves.

“At a time when the BBC is restructuring local radio to save money, this news will be a kick in the teeth to many across the organisation and beyond. Our members are providing a vital public service, by providing coverage of local councils that would be virtually non-existent otherwise. Their pay should reflect this valuable contribution to the titles that rely on their work, and to society as a whole.”

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